VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis announced an extraordinary
jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, to highlight the Catholic
Church's "mission to be a witness of mercy."
"No one can be excluded from God's mercy," the pope said
March 13, marking the second anniversary of his pontificate
by leading a Lenten penance service in St. Peter's Basilica.
"I frequently have thought about how the church can make more
evident its mission to be a witness of mercy," he said during
his homily; that is why he decided to call a special Holy
Year, which will be celebrated from Dec. 8, 2015, until Nov.
The biblical theme of the year, he said, will be "Be
merciful, just as your Father is merciful," an admonition
that applies "especially to confessors," the pope said with a
Traditionally, every 25 years the popes proclaim a holy year,
which features special celebrations and pilgrimages, strong
calls for conversion and repentance, and the offer of special
opportunities to experience God's grace through the
sacraments, especially confession. Extraordinary holy years,
like the Holy Year of Mercy, are less frequent, but offer the
same opportunities for spiritual growth.
The doors of the church "are wide open so that all those who
are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness,"
Pope Francis said at the penance service, which featured
individual confessions. It was part of a worldwide
celebration of "24 Hours for the Lord," in which Catholic
churches were staying open for prayer, eucharistic adoration
At each of the dozens of confessionals in St. Peter's
Basilica, as well as in simple chairs scattered along the
walls, priests welcomed people to the sacrament. The pope
removed his liturgical vestments and went to confession
before putting on a purple stole and hearing the confessions
"God never ceases to demonstrate the richness of his mercy
over the course of centuries," the pope said in his homily,
which preceded the confessions. God touches people's hearts
with his grace, filling them with repentance and a desire to
"experience his love."
"Being touched by the tenderness of his hand," people should
not be afraid to approach a priest and confess their sins, he
said. In the confessional, one has "the certainty of being
welcomed in the name of God and understood, despite our
"The greater the sin, the greater the love, which the church
must express toward those who convert," Pope Francis said.
The Gospel reading at the penance service was the story of
the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and
dried them with her hair. Every time one goes to confession,
the pope said, "we feel the same compassionate gaze of Jesus"
that she did.
Jesus' love, he said, allowed her to draw near, to
demonstrate her repentance and to show her love for him.
"Every gesture of this woman speaks of love and expresses her
desire to have an unshakable certainty in her life, that of
having been forgiven."
"Love and forgiveness are simultaneous" in the story of each
person, just as in the story of the sinful woman, he said.
"God forgave her for much - for everything - because he loved
Through Jesus, the pope said, God took the woman's sins and
"threw them over his shoulder, he no longer remembers them."
Jesus' encounter with the woman took place in the home of a
Pharisee named Simon. Unlike the woman, the pope said, Simon
"isn't able to find the path of love. He remains stopped at
the threshold of formality. He is not able to take the next
step to encounter Jesus, who brings salvation."
The Pharisee is concerned only with following God's law, with
justice, which is a mistake, the pope said. "His judgment of
the woman distances him from the truth and prevents him from
understanding who his guest is."
Jesus scolds Simon, pointing out how the "sinful woman" has
shown nothing but love and repentance, the pope said. "Jesus'
rebuke pushes each of us to never stop at the surface of
things, especially when dealing with a person. We are called
to look deeper, to focus on the heart in order to see how
much generosity the personal is capable of."
Pope Francis said he asked the Pontifical Council for
Promoting New Evangelization to coordinate preparations for
the Holy Year so that it would be "a new stage in the
church's journey in fulfilling its mission of bringing the
Gospel of mercy to each person."