The late and abiding fruits of a jubilee year
By Msgr. Michael Heintz
The value of our prayer is not to be determined by our experience of it, but by its effects in our life. Similarly, the fruits of a retreat are not best evaluated the morning after the night before, that is, just as we come off the retreat; but perhaps more helpfully six months later, to determine if there are actually any long-term effects of its grace in our life. We may have had the experience of having a fantastic experience on a retreat, but in the weeks following discover that our life has gone back to be just about the same as it was before, with little or no lasting change or improvement in our relationship with the Lord.
In the same way, it is important as the Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to a close to look for its fruits in our life long-term, as well as in the graces we may have received during the year itself. When the Holy Father, following the precedent of previous pontiffs, proposed the jubilee year, it was a gift to the Church, inviting all Catholics to two things: first, to reflect more deeply on the mystery of God’s mercy revealed in Jesus, His Son; and second, on the basis of this reflection, to enact, as sons and daughters in the Son, the divine mercy we ourselves have received. It is, after all, part and parcel of a Catholic sensibility to take the “long view” and to maintain the broadest possible horizon: the perspective of eternity.
Mercy, like the agape or love of the Gospels, is always received before it is given. It is a cardinal principal of the Christian life that we are capable of love — and mercy — only because God has first loved us and first extended His mercy to us in his Eternal Son made flesh. The reason we are taught to love and forgive our enemies is that, strictly speaking, neither love nor mercy are ours to withhold. That is, the love and mercy we show toward others was first given to us in Christ. The love with which we love our spouse, friends, children, enemies and even God is first God’s love shown to us; we are only returning it or extending it, or, actually, returning it by extending it. We have no right to withhold it, because it doesn’t belong to us. It was a gift to us to begin with.
The same is true of mercy. We cannot withhold forgiveness, because it is not ours to begin with; it is first shown to us. As faithful followers of Jesus and unworthy recipients of His mercy, we must extend it to others. This, of course, is the point of the parable in Matthew 18 of the unmerciful servant, as well as the basis for the Lord’s remark elsewhere that “the measure you measure with will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). These are words from the Lord that, perhaps more than the dire warning of “the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not extinguished,” should shake us to the core. How often have we withheld forgiveness, perhaps doing so even as we read this, and yet expect the Lord’s mercy, once again, to be ours?
In fact, paradoxically, God’s love and mercy can be ours only to the extent that we are willing to give them away to others. The moment we think we possess them or cling to them as ours by right, we lose them. They grow, and we maintain them, only when we give them away, and do so prodigally.
What is our take-away from the Year of Mercy? What should be its abiding fruits? First, I would hope a deeper sense of the sheer wonder, gratuity and prodigality of God’s mercy toward us, as well as our own concrete experience of that mercy, particularly in the sacrament of penance, or confession. We are, after all, serial sinners, which is why the sacrament can and should be repeated and why the Church offers it so frequently. We should all have a deeper love for the sacrament and a greater faithfulness to it.
When folks ask, “How often should I go to confession?” my response is that a general rule of thumb is once a month or so. Of course, Catholics are obliged to make use of the sacrament only once a year, in anticipation of Easter, but frankly, the more frequent celebration of the sacrament A) makes it easier to remember just what those failings are and to grow in an honest self-awareness; and B) keeps us more attentive to the dynamics of sin and grace, and the patterns of each that can be identified more readily when the sacrament is celebrated with greater frequency.
But as marvelous a grace as the experience of being a recipient of God’s mercy, perhaps greater yet is the grace of being ourselves more free in offering that same mercy to others. The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, while providing a nice synopsis of the scriptural teaching on what this might look like, are not simply for the Year of Mercy, to be carted out and dressed up in honor of this year, only to be boxed up again and returned to the shelf, like Christmas or holiday décor, as we turn to what’s next on our spiritual horizon. Rather they should be the “furniture” of our everyday life, the standard operating procedures of anyone who has become by grace a new creation in Christ. They should have become for us just what we do, almost without having to be conscious of them or reflective about them.
Ideally, what began last year as intentional works of discipleship will almost effortlessly have become our habit of being. In doing so, we fulfill the Lord’s words: “What you receive as a gift, give as a gift” (Matt 10:8).
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