I watched the pope as he made his way through the African countries he recently visited, sometime live stream, and with my breath held at times seeing the circumstances and tight security under which he traveled and reached out to people. He did so with such a calm manner. Watching yesterday as he opened the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, gave me the inspiration for the monthly column, called Eye on Francis, I write for the American Catholic Council newsletter. As I watched him open the door, then stand in the threshold for some minutes, then move up the aisle of the cathedral amidst shouts, cries, and ululations, he seemed to have been very moved by the experience. In his comments beforehand, his voice broke when he pronounced the words of the quote at the beginning of the article. Below is the text of my article.
Jubilee years have a long and ancient tradition. In the Old Testament, a jubilee year was celebrated at the end of either the 49th or the 50th year depending on interpretations of the Book of Leviticus. The year had to do with land, property and property rights. It was a time of liberation in which slaves went back to their families.
The Christian tradition adopted the practice in 1300 with the pope calling a Jubilee year either every 25 or 50 years. The last one was called by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Pope Francis has called for one this year through 2016. Because it is not being called in the usual cycle, it is called an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. He has declared it to be a Jubilee of Mercy. In either the Jewish or the Christian tradition, a Jubilee year is a time of joy and a time of universal forgiveness. With the theme of this upcoming Jubilee, Francis has emphasized this time of forgiveness and mercy in a very profound way.
Part of the Christian tradition of Jubilees is the opening of the so-called “Holy Door” in all major cathedrals world-wide. During Jubilee years, people pass through the Holy Door in a symbolic gesture recognizing the influence of God in their lives, symbolizing the crossing of a threshold from one state of life to another, from being bound by limitations such as sin, to one of freedom, beginning over. Jubilee years usually begin with the opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Pope Francis, instead, choose to open first the Holy Door in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Bangui in the Central African Republic on his recent trip there. In doing so, he made a very profound statement as to what a Jubilee year means and what in particular this Jubilee year means not only for the Church, but for the world.
Austen Ivereigh in his book The Great Reformer, Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, chose to describe Jorge Mario Bergoglio as a “prophetic mystic”. I saw this on full display when watching Francis open the Holy Door in Bangui on November 29th. In choosing this cathedral in this country, he was being both prophet and mystic. He was deliberately emphasizing his vision for the Church, of one at the peripheries, reaching out to those so very marginalized and in so much pain and suffering. It is a Church that is “bruised and hurting” itself because it goes out to the peripheries to help those who have been “left by the side of the road”.
He could not have chosen a more symbolic place and time to open this Holy Door. Beginning in 2013, the Central African Republic has been torn apart by a politically motivated, bloody civil war. Religion has been used as a cover. The Muslim minority began the civil war with the Christian majority retaliating back with similar levels of violence. The refugee population is close to a half million in the country living in squalid camps in various areas. Churches in Bangui were bombed in a grenade attacks in 2014 resulting in deaths. Mosques were destroyed. In his words prior to opening the Holy Door, he called Bangui the “spiritual capital of the world, here, today”. He fully believes that in opening the Holy Door in this location will result in God’s mercy flowing out into the world. In case you think this is too mystical, he shows us how this will be accomplished in his actions. He tells us how this will be done in his words. Just being in this very dangerous country speaks to acting without fear in bringing God’s mercy and love to whomever he touches. He was quoted as saying to the pilot of the plane flying him to Africa “that if they didn’t feel comfortable landing in the Central African Republic, they should do a fly-over and give him a parachute, because one way or the other, he was getting there” (Inez Martin, cruxnow.com, “Africa Trip Captured ‘Pope of the Peripheries’ at his boldest”, November 30, 2015) . And he knows just how to touch, using tender care when he kisses small children or caresses the cheeks of an elderly and ailing woman. His words throughout his time in the Central African Republic were “mercy”, “love”, “forgiveness”, “reconciliation”, “peace”. His encouragement to the youth of this country, where the majority of the population is under 19 years, was to seek to overcome hatred of the other, to forgive those who have done you wrong and to keep praying.
So how does all of what he does and says affect us in our daily lives? He says many times that it will be accomplished in all the “little things we do in our daily lives”. That means you learn to curb your “road rage” the next time someone cuts you off in traffic. You learn to hold back on any judgment you make of others, for ANY reason. You learn to “bend down” to help your neighbor, whoever that neighbor may be. You learn to not speak ill of anyone, to cut out the gossip. Even if none of this makes sense to you, he says to do it anyway and keep doing it. It will begin to change you inside. A river starts with small drops of water. A river of mercy starts with these kinds of small actions. If you think you are not capable of doing this, look to Francis. Here he was in a dangerous, war-torn land, death threats from radicals aimed at him, an elderly man with a bad back, bad knees and flat feet, opening a door and looking like he was pushing the weight of the world in doing so. Here he was, picking up little children to kiss their cheeks, reaching out his hands to those who were sick, even some with AIDS, in one of the poorest, most forsaken and devastated countries in the world. He was opening a door of mercy to the world and to each one us individually.