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Seeking grace to show mercy

I am convinced that the whole church - that has much need to receive mercy because we are sinners - will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time - Pope Francis

Happy Year of Mercy to you.

To which the faithful respond, "Thank you. And what exactly is a 'Year of Mercy' anyway?"

Every 25 years, the church proclaims a "jubilee" or "holy" year - a time for the faithful to turn back to God, to receive blessing and the forgiveness of sins. But the pope, being pope, doesn't have to confine himself to that 25-year timetable. He can proclaim an "extraordinary" holy year. And that is what Pope Francis has done in proclaiming 2016 the Year of Mercy.

And in this special time, that message is centered in the Father's mercy. In fact, the Holy Father has designated the theme as "Merciful like the Father."

I figure, before we launch an entire year focusing on the Father's mercy, we should figure out what mercy is. So I looked it up. I found two definitions: "kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly" and "the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment."

So what does God's mercy look like? He treats us kindly when we could be treated harshly. He possesses the power to pardon or to mitigate punishment.

Why do you suppose Pope Francis went to all of the trouble of proclaiming an extraordinary holy year just to focus on God's mercy? I suspect it had something to do with the fact that, in this culture, we are saddled with the two opposite but equally damaging misconceptions about God's mercy.

The first is that God is not merciful. Sometimes it's personal - we have committed some sin that we think must be beyond the pale of God's forgiveness. Other times it's more general - we have this picture of a stern, remote deity who sits up on his throne, dangling helpless souls over the flames â la Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Either way, we conclude that we are better off without Him.

The other, more prevalent misconception is that God exists and loves us, but that we have no need of His mercy. Again, it manifests in two different ways. The more common is the belief that there is no need for mercy because there is no such thing as sin. There is ignorance, there is poverty, there is oppression. Those things may cause us to behave badly, but without any personal responsibility. There are also behaviors that used to be considered "sinful," but now we are "enlightened" and realize that God has no problem with them whatsoever. No sin, no need for God's mercy.

And finally, there are those of us who acknowledge that sin exists and that sinful people are badly in need of His mercy and forgiveness. But we have managed - generally through our own innate wonderfulness - to avoid becoming ensnared in that sin. So, rock on, sinful people. Go to God and get some of that mercy. Tell Him I said 'hi.'

Yep, I think that covers pretty much everybody.

God is perfection. Perfect truth. Perfect goodness. Perfect love. We have all fallen short of that. Badly. We are all in need of His mercy. But if we don't acknowledge that, if we don't ask for pardon and seek His mercy, we miss it. Hence the yearlong reminder - and the abundant graces that come with it - courtesy of Pope Francis.

So this is the year that we turn to God, recognizing our sinfulness, and ask for His mercy. And then, we become "merciful like the Father." We extend that mercy to others. We treat kindly those we could treat harshly.

We don't do that by pretending sin isn't sin. Sin causes damage to persons created in the image and likeness of God. That's what makes it sin. Pretending it doesn't exist isn't treating them kindly; it is standing by while the damage continues. That's why one of the spiritual works of mercy is "admonishing the sinner."

But neither do we stand in judgment, condemn or fail to love everyone with the love of Christ. If they don't see it in us, where will they see it?

But how can we do that while still "admonishing the sinner"? It's a tricky balancing act. One that we can't possibly manage ourselves. We need help, we need grace.

And that's what we are given, in abundance, in a Holy Year.

So take advantage of it.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015