WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNA/EWTN News) - Is it simply having pity for someone or bending the rules? As the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy kicks off, Catholic theologians weigh in on mercy, and its surprising connection to justice.
True mercy is action, "reaching out to and accompanying people where they're at, even in their state of brokenness...in order to bring new life," Dr. William Mattison, a moral theology professor at the Catholic University of America, said in an interview with CNA.
This "brokenness" could be a spiritual state like sinfulness or a physical or emotional sickness, he clarified.
"The fundamental stance of God towards humanity is mercy," he said. "We alienated ourselves from God, communally and individually in sin," he acknowledged, but "God doesn't just feel bad for us, He sends the Son. Christ doesn't just feel bad for people, He heals people and invites them."
Pope Francis began the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy by opening the Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on the morning of Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The Holy Door is only opened for a jubilee year - once every 25 years with the last one being in the year 2000 - or in this case, for an extraordinary jubilee.
Pilgrims who pass through the Holy Door may receive a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions; the Holy Father has also asked all bishops to designate a Holy Door in their dioceses, normally at the cathedral, so pilgrims could celebrate the jubilee everywhere.
"To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them. This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God's mercy," he preached at mass on Dec. 8 just before the opening of the Holy Door.
A pilgrimage to a Holy Door is actually a "very concrete" act of participation in God's mercy and is at the "heart" of the Year of Mercy, said Dr. Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at Catholic University of America.
The tradition goes back centuries to the time when churches and cathedrals were physical sanctuaries for innocent people fleeing violence and war, he explained.
"This is just the eternal spiritual extension of that idea, it seems to me," he said, that the cathedrals and shrines are both physical and spiritual sanctuaries for pilgrims. "The fundamental theme is return...return to the cathedrals."
Holy Doors become "doorways into holiness" for those who fulfill all the requirements for a plenary indulgence - which include an examination of conscience, an honest assessment of sins, a contrite heart, and prayers.
All this makes for an "arduous" spiritual pilgrimage, however short a pilgrim's journey may be to a Holy Door, Pecknold said. True repentance and a commitment to changing one's life are required. Thus the pilgrimage "isn't just a kind of tourist attraction."
The Sacrament of Penance will also be a key focus of the Year of Mercy. In his Sept. 1 papal letter on the coming jubilee year, Pope Francis wrote that "it is important" that the pilgrimages to the Holy Door "be linked, first and foremost, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a reflection on mercy."
Mercy has been central to Francis' pontificate, Dr. Mattison noted. It has been "the number one theme in his audiences and public comments for the last number of years," he said. Even Pope Francis' metaphors of the Church as a "mother" and a "field hospital" for sinners are images of mercy, he explained.
However, contrary to what some may think about mercy being an "abdication of justice," God's mercy and justice share the same end - bringing about "right relationship" - he explained.
"If my kid is obstinately avoiding treating his mother respectfully, there's a time for mercy, but there's also a time to recognize that things are what they are and they need to be punished," he said.
"The goal of punishment is not an end in itself. The goal of punishment is to correct the will of the sinner to be restored into right relationship."
However, if someone is already repentant, "mercy is appropriate" because "the goal has been achieved" of bringing about the right relationship, he added.
Everyone can actively participate in God's mercy though the Sacrament of Confession and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, he explained.
"If you want to be part of that (salvation) story, your role in that story is to participate in it, to recognize your own brokenness and need for God's mercy, and also to reach out mercifully to others," he said. This is found in the Gospel when Jesus teaches the apostles to pray the "Our Father" (Mt. 6: 9-15), he noted.
"We're praying that God mercifully treat us like we mercifully treat others," Dr. Mattison said. "And that's the only petition of the Lord's Prayer that actually gets repeated."
Many think of mercy as practiced toward the most destitute. This is true, Dr. Mattison said, but it is most commonly practiced towards those whom one interacts with daily - family, friends, and colleagues.
"The most common occasions for loving your enemy are not ISIS," he said, but when family members or coworkers anger us and frustrate us.