During the last 11 years, the Holy See has declared the Year of the Eucharist (2004-2005); Year of St. Paul (2008-2009); Year for Priests (2009-2010), Year of Faith (2013), and Year of Consecrated Life (2014-2015). Beginning Dec. 8, and running through Nov. 20, 2016, Catholics will observe the Year of Mercy, as proclaimed by Pope Francis April 11, 2015.

While it is difficult to quantify the impact those designated years have had on the faithful, Rich Harter, director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization and coordinator for the Year of Mercy, believes the Year of Mercy will be different from previous “Year of” observances and will make a major impact – at least in the archdiocese.     

“Why this speaks to people’s hearts in a deep way is because it’s not about a theme; it’s about a relationship. When you talk about mercy, you’re talking about God’s relationship with us, in particular the saving mercy through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection,” he said. “So people relate to a relationship very differently than they do a theme.”

Another reason why this year “just grabs people,” according to Harter, is that mercy is personal for people – they need it and they are called to give it away.

He termed Pope Francis “a sort of incarnation of mercy.”

“As he walks around, as the leader of our church, his gestures, his actions, his intentionality around people is always speaking – proclaiming — mercy. His words and actions are very intentional,” Harter said. “What makes this Year of Mercy powerful is that people associate it with him as well as with God. Also, it’s very personal because he makes the mercy of God personal.”

Hands-on experience in archdiocese

As with all spiritual realities, there is a danger that mercy might be relegated to the hypothetical or pie in the sky or individual God and me, according to Harter, but that’s a misunderstanding of mercy.

“We belong to each other and Jesus is trying to call us as a church and as a people. Mercy has to be embodied in action and the intentionality around that,” he said. “That is when mercy is real.”

 In his bull of indiction – the declaration for the Year of Mercy – Pope Francis emphasizes two practices deeply rooted in Catholicism: works of mercy – corporal and spiritual, and pilgrimage. The latter might not be as familiar as the former.

“Pilgrimage is mercy in action, as well as it is us going away from our comfortable place to go somewhere new. That’s the whole Catholic idea of pilgrimage,” Harter explained. “It’s not only going physically somewhere new, but we go somewhere physically new out on mission to go somewhere spiritually new, to be renewed, to be changed. So mercy is on the move in pilgrimage.”

During 2016, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki will make pilgrimages to seven sites, each representing one of the Corporal Works of Mercy (http://tinyurl.com/nqojdks). At each site, he will lead a brief prayer service, deliver a catechesis on the work of mercy represented by the site, highlight the agency’s work, and invite those who journey with him to practice the suggested “mercy actions” that have been designated for that month (http://tinyurl.com/pv42bnp).

Harter said people can’t be forced to act.

“In all things in faith, you can’t make people do the action without it flowing out of the fundamental relationship that you have with God and others. It’s an invitation,” he said, adding that  when people have a deeply personal experience of mercy, then the response to give it away through the Corporal Works of Mercy is a natural reaction to that experience.

“The Corporal Works of Mercy and the Spiritual Works of Mercy can work both ways,” Harter said. “They can be the response to mercy we’ve received as well the invitation to mercy in our own lives. Oftentimes when you reach out in mercy to other people, their reaction and their gift back to you is always bigger than anything you’ve given, which then invites your heart to open up.”

A time to sacrifice

While the “mercy actions” might appear simple to fulfill, Harter noted it’s not necessarily easy.

“It’s very challenging,” he said, adding that the Year of Mercy is “meant to be a call to sacrifice, to put our lives on the line.”
Harter said the spotlight on the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy should remove any concerns people have about the Year of Mercy being too vague, and replacing them with a specific focus and action.  

“My dream is that in marshalling the entire weight and power and compassion of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee around one particular movement toward mercy each month we could literally change the world,” he said.

He cited feeding the hungry.

“Imagine what would happen if Catholics throughout the archdiocese really focused on feeding the hungry for that month. If we got families involved, individuals, leaders — all of sudden we’re donating food, giving money to pantries and meal programs,” Harter said. “We’re making a difference. Sacrifice for change. That’s what the cross is about, that’s what the Year of Mercy is about.”

‘Bridge of evangelization’

While the Year of Mercy will officially end Nov. 20, 2016, Harter hopes it doesn’t – at least not the work that he expects will have taken place between now and then.

“I’m going to be praying on that day (Nov. 20) that the power of the Holy Spirit has moved throughout the year and has moved to invite people into the experience of mercy, the action of mercy, and that the year does not end,” he said. “That mercy overflows into our lives personally and into the community and the world. That is at the heart of God’s relationship to us, and the heart of the mission of the church.”

Calling himself “super passionate” about the Year of Mercy, he added, “I’m hoping people throughout the archdiocese can find a way to use this year and experience to focus on mercy as a way to be a bridge of evangelization and trust to people who have maybe fallen away from the faith, or have maybe never encountered the Good News of Jesus in their lives. The Year of Mercy is a moment of evangelization.”
Information about the archdiocese’s plans for the Year of Mercy will appear regularly in the Catholic Herald, on www.catholicherald.org., and www.archmil.org/Our-Faith/Year-of-Mercy.htm