At celebration of "24 Hours for the Lord" in Rome, Pope Francis announces Holy Year of Mercy

Stefano Spaziani | Catholic News Service
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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. 20, 2016.

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 smile.

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 and confession.

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 of others.

"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 misery."

"The greater the sin, the greater the love, which the church must express toward those who convert," Pope Francis said.

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."

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