Tuesday marked the first day of what Pope Francis has declared the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and for local Catholics, that means reflecting on God's mercy and extending mercy to others.
The jubilee, or holy year, which lasts through Nov. 20, 2016, is a time for the forgiveness and reconciliation for Catholics, according to the Religion News Service. Jubilee years, inspired by traditions of the ancient Israelites, generally happen once every 25 years, but the Year of Mercy is considered an "extraordinary" holy year, because it falls outside of the regular time table.
Pope Francis marked the occasion during a Mass at St. Peter's Square by opening the Vactican Holy Door, which is usually sealed except in Jubilee years. Millions are expected to make the pilgrimage to Rome this year to walk through it.
For the first time, doors at cathedrals around the world, including in Richmond, will also be opened for the Year of Mercy, the Vatican announced.
"The whole purpose of this is to … allow the message of the mercy of God to transform our personal prayer lives and reach out to a world that's in desperate need of that mission of mercy," said Msgr. Timothy Keeney of St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg. "God is always love. Mercy is what it looks like when it encounters misery and suffering."
The Vatican said the occasion coincides with the church's feast of the Immaculate Conception, which declares that Jesus' mother Mary was conceived without original sin, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which helped modernize church practices.
"It allows Catholics to focus on the nature of God's mercy," said the Rev. John David Ramsey of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Newport News. "It's about openness and that the forgiveness of the love of God is for everyone."
In the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has granted priests the ability to forgive women who have had abortions, as well as those who have helped them get abortions.
Because abortion is considered a grave sin, bishops are typically the only ones granted the authority to foregive.
That does not affect American priests, however, because they have already been allowed to grant forgiveness for abortions, both Ramsey and Keeney said.
While the rules help bring clarity to church teaching, a priest has the power to apply the consequences of that teaching to the circumstances of each individual, Ramsey said.
"All the Catholic faith wants is for us to be free and joyful in Christ," he said. "When people fail, there's always forgiveness possible. That takes us back to the year of mercy."
Local churches have either begun hosting activities related to the Year of Mercy or will be doing so in the coming months.
Preparations have been underway for prayer, education and community initiatives at St. Bede for the last five months, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel will stress lessons about mercy in its adult and children's education classes.
Keeney stressed the power of prayer in the quest for mercy.
"Prayer is a key part of the larger issue," he said. "It has real and tangible power in the world. It should not be overlooked as part of the solution."
During the year, members of St. Jerome will be undertaking projects that correspond to each of what's known in the church as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which call on the faithful to take care of their neighbors' physical and spiritual needs, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and comfort the afflicted, said Margaret Curtis, the church's director of formation. Members of St. Bede will also be focusing on those.
Planned projects include putting together food packets used to feed tsunami victims in the Phillipines for the organization Stop Hunger Now, as well as hosting a clothing drive for migrants on the Eastern Shore.
"The pope is really calling on all of us to pay attention to the poor among us, to be more involved, to take a stand on the needs that are out there," she said.
Curtis said the faithful are also called to forgive themselves and others.
"The only way we're going to be able to change the world is by being compassionate," she said.
Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.