And he urged all Catholics to spend more time practicing what traditionally have been called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works are: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, giving drink to the thirsty and burying the dead.
The spiritual works are: converting sinners, instructing the ignorant, advising the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries and praying for the living and dead.
The date the pope chose to open the year — Dec. 8 — is the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. Both dates, he wrote, are related to the Year of Mercy.
Mercy, he said, is “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sins.” That bridge was made concrete when God chose Mary to be the mother of his son.
The Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote, is also a way to keep the Second Vatican Council alive. “The walls which too long had made the church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way,” he said. The council recognized “a responsibility to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world.”
The life and action of the church, he said, “is authentic and credible only when she becomes a convincing herald of mercy,” a mercy that “knows no bounds and extends to everyone without exception.”
While some people try to argue that mercy, even God’s mercy, is limited by the demands of justice, Pope Francis said mercy and justice are “two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.”
Preaching mercy, he said, is not the same as ignoring sin or withholding correction. Instead, mercy invites repentance and conversion and ensures the sinner that once God forgives a sin, he forgets it.
The pope addressed direct appeals in the document to members of the mafia and other criminal organizations as well as to officials and others involved in corruption. “For their own good, I beg them to change their lives,” he wrote. “I ask them this in the name of the Son of God who, though rejecting sin, never rejected the sinner.”
“Violence inflicted for the sake of amassing riches soaked in blood makes one neither powerful nor immortal,” he continued. “Everyone, sooner or later, will be subject to God’s judgment, from which no one can escape.”
At the same time, Pope Francis wrote, many of those who insist first on God’s justice are like the Pharisees who thought they could save themselves by following the letter of the law, but ended up simply placing “burdens on the shoulders of others and undermined the Father’s mercy.”
“God’s justice is his mercy,” the pope said. “Mercy is not opposed to justice, but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert and believe.”
Recognizing that they have been treated with mercy by God, he said, Christians are obliged to treat others with mercy. In fact, the Gospel says that Christians will be judged by the mercy they show others.
“At times how hard it seems to forgive,” he said. “And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully.”
Pope Francis also noted that God’s mercy is an important theme in Judaism and Islam, and he urged efforts during the Year of Mercy to increase interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding with followers of both faiths.