BEDFORD, Va. — From the corner of her eye, Colleen Criste could see the tears streaming down his face, swollen and red, as she gave her testimony of how God’s merciful love changed her life. Listening intently to the story of how the Father rescued a 17-year-old girl from her own pain after abortion was a 25-year-old young man carrying nine tormented years of his own secret sorrow.
Until the “Catching F.I.R.E. Tent Revival” at Holy Name of Mary parish in Bedford, Virginia, Criste, the coordinator for the parish’s prayer ministry, had never shared publicly that part of her life from the late 1980s.
But her husband’s nephew Ben sat in front of Criste, listening to her story of God’s love and mercy in her life. For almost a decade, he had been suffering enormously over the death of his three-day-old sister. The devastated teenager turned to painkillers, and then alcohol and harder drugs. He lost jobs, his driver’s license and his relationships with his family. He even contemplated suicide.
At that Year of Mercy event, Criste said the young man “cried a river of tears.” He shared his own unhappiness, along with his desire to reconcile with his family and start over. He had a long talk with Father Dave Pivonka, a Third Order Franciscan preacher leading the revival, and went to confession and Mass. Now, Ben works full time for his uncle’s business, reads the Bible, prays the Rosary with their family and shares “his gift of cooking with us.”
“Ben is a miracle story ... a prodigal son,” Criste said — another example of the “Father’s deep love and mercy for all of us, especially for those of us who feel the least worthy.”
Across the United States, dioceses and archdioceses, individual parishes and communities responded to the Year of Mercy in different ways to help people experience the Father’s merciful love.
Every cathedral in the country had a “holy door” designated for pilgrims to receive the jubilee-year plenary indulgence. Many dioceses designated other holy doors at churches and shrines for Year of Mercy pilgrims (see travel story).
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia designated another five shrines as holy doors for pilgrimage, in addition to the one at the cathedral, and hosted events focusing on the jubilee year at the cathedral, such as Year of Mercy Holy Hours and having one of Pope Francis’ “missionaries of mercy” hearing confessions alongside Archbishop Charles Chaput.
“I would say that there was a noticeable increase in men and women receiving the sacrament of penance,” said Father Dennis Gill, the cathedral rector and the archdiocese’s director of the Office of Divine Worship. He told the Register that the archdiocese also asked parishes to give a special emphasis on celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, as well as instruction on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and how to take action on them.
“[In] those parishes where the jubilee year was preached well, it had an impact,” he said.
The Diocese of Oakland, California, sought to help Catholics engage in the works of mercy through “The Mercy Project Video Series.” The diocese produced a series of 14 videos that told the stories of people in the diocese who exemplified a work of mercy.
Stephen Mullin, associate director of parish and community engagement for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, told the Register that Bishop Michael Barber wanted coordination of acts of mercy for parishioners to engage in during the Year of Mercy. They spread awareness about the sex trafficking of minors in the community and enlisted 84 parishes in the effort to open Claire’s House, the first home for teenage girls victimized by sex slavery, which will open its doors in 2017.
Pilgrims’ Progress in Mercy
Encouraging Catholics to engage in the Year of Mercy through the tradition of pilgrimage was a key part of the jubilee year. The Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colorado, for example, put together a guide booklet for Catholics showing not only the shrines in state, but also how to go on pilgrimage to holy doors in New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Bishop Michael Sheridan also led diocesan pilgrims to Rome for a pilgrimage to the major basilicas at the end of September.
The Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, scheduled only two formal jubilee celebrations — the opening of the holy doors on Dec. 8, 2015, and the closing of the holy doors on Nov. 19, 2016. But Marian Father Thaddeus Lancton said there has been a swell of pilgrims: The Marians usually have one confessor hearing confessions during the week, but, often, four confessors have been providing the sacrament of reconciliation.
In October, he said, at least one bus of pilgrims arrived every day of the week, some with bishops leading diocesan pilgrimages.
“People want to experience the mercy of God in their lives,” the priest said. He explained that so many people come to the shrine with “all sorts of suffering” and have a need to know that God is mercy. “They want to experience that mercy concretely — in sacramental form.”
Missionary of Mercy
In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Msgr. George Majoros has carried out a busy ministry as one of Pope Francis’ missionaries of mercy.
“I’ve seen the ‘dead’ come back to life,” he told the Register.
One person returned to confession after a 50-year absence. Others sought the pardon for sins that can only be absolved by the Pope, which the Holy Father granted to missionaries of mercy for the jubilee year, such as profaning the Eucharist, the use of physical force against the Pope, the absolution of an accomplice in sexual sin and deliberately breaking the seal of the confessional.
Msgr. Majoros said that the local Church has opportunities to extend this mercy that people are hungering for, even after the jubilee year. He suggested that bishops designate certain churches or shrines as local centers of reconciliation and choose those priests best suited to help people find the Father’s mercy in confession.
Bishop Sheridan told the Register that, for the Year of Mercy, he asked priests in the Colorado Springs Diocese to offer confession at another time during the week, such as a convenient time in the evening, in addition to their regular Saturday schedules. While many priests were concerned that “no one would come,” what they discovered was “those extra times were filled.”
“I’d like to see that continue beyond the Year of Mercy,” the bishop said, adding that people “want to come to confession, and they will — if it’s available.”
The Year of Mercy also coincided with a year that saw a surge in violence, persecution and hatred, both at home and all over the globe.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ outgoing president, Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, told the Register that the news cycle seemed to hold a “mirror of violence captured within our environments and our families.”
“Even the election cycle has been filled with rancor and a lack of civility,” he said ahead of Election Day.
The archbishop said the Year of Mercy showed the need for Catholics to remember in their witness the advice of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein): “Do not accept as true anything that is not presented with love, and do not accept anything as loving that lacks a basis in truth.”
As the Year of Mercy comes to an end on Nov. 20, Archbishop Kurtz said the next step for Catholics — lay and clergy alike — is to follow the Holy Father’s counsel to “receive patiently and carefully” the fruits of the jubilee year.
The archbishop said he believes the jubilee year has made a difference in his own life.
Every day, in the privacy of his chapel, he reads at least two dozen petitions from members of his archdiocese and brings them to the Lord Jesus.
“It’s a regular part of my Holy Hour now,” he said, “and it is connected, I suspect, with this Jubilee Year of Mercy and the emphasis we’ve had, both on receiving and sharing mercy with others.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.