YEAR OF MERCY | Mercy Fridays give pope a year of stories, tears, hugs

L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters
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VATICAN CITY — Tears, prayers, caresses — but most of all, listening — were the hallmarks of Pope Francis' "Mercy Friday" visits during the Year of Mercy.

As the jubilee began last December, Pope Francis said he would ditch the media one Friday afternoon each month and personally try to give life to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Throughout the year, he used his weekly general audiences and monthly Saturday jubilee audiences to teach about the reality of God's mercy and the obligation of sharing mercy with others.

But the Mercy Friday visits — even the two that were not held on a Friday — were about presence. While top personnel at the places he visited had some advance notice, in most cases the guests, residents or patients did not. The Mercy Fridays gave them a chance to tell the pope their stories and, usually, to share a late afternoon snack with him.

Here is a list of the pope's Mercy Friday visits through October:

— Dec. 18, in an event that turned out not to be private at all — the pope opened the Holy Door at a remodeled Rome Caritas homeless shelter and celebrated Mass there.

— Jan. 15, Pope Francis visited a retirement home in Rome and a nearby care home for people in a persistent vegetative state.

— Feb. 26, he visited members of a residential community for people recovering from drug addiction.

— March 24, Holy Thursday, Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Lord's Supper at a refugee center in Castelnuovo di Porto, north of Rome, and washed the feet of asylum seekers.

— April 16, Pope Francis joined Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens for visits with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. The pope brought 12 of the refugees to Rome with him.

— May 13, he visited Il Chicco, a L'Arche community south of Rome. L'Arche communities are homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives.

— June 17, the pope visited two communities of priests; one was a home for retired priests and the other was described as a community for priests with "various difficulties."

— July 29, during Pope Francis' visit to Poland for World Youth Day, the Vatican described the following events as part of the Mercy Friday initiative: a silent visit to the Nazi's Auschwitz death camp; a visit to a pediatric hospital; and the celebration of the Way of the Cross that connected each station to a work of mercy.

— Aug. 12, he visited a community for women rescued from the slavery of prostitution.

— Sept. 16, Pope Francis visited the neonatal unit of a Rome hospital and a hospice across town.

— Oct. 14, he spent the afternoon at Rome's SOS Children's Village, which attempts to provide a home-like atmosphere for children under the age of 12 whose parents cannot care for them. 

By Junno Arocho Esteves

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — After celebrating Mass with detainees and people who had been in prison, Pope Francis called on governments to mark the end of the Year of Mercy by extending clemency to deserving inmates.

The pope also called for renewed efforts to ensure justice systems not only punish crimes but also work to give prisoners hope for the future.

Civil authorities must work to improve living conditions for those serving time "so that the human dignity of prisoners may be fully respected," the pope said Nov. 6 during his Sunday Angelus address in St. Peter's Square.

The pope's appeal for "an act of clemency toward those imprisoned who are considered eligible to benefit from this measure" came after his celebration of a jubilee Mass for prisoners. About 1,000 current and former prisoners from 12 countries, as well as priests, religious men and women and laypeople who work in prison ministry, attended the Mass.

Detainees from several prisons in Italy and Spain were given special permission to attend the Mass for the Year of Mercy. Inmates from Italian prisons in Brescia, Busto Arsizio and Palermo served as altar servers, while a choir composed of prisoners and volunteers from the Dozza prison in Bologna provided the music for the celebration.

In his homily, the pope reflected on the Sunday readings, which he said acknowledged "God as the source" of hope.

The jubilee celebration is a time for prisoners and those who have served time to remember that while a price is paid for breaking the law, "hope must not falter," he said.

"Paying for the wrong we have done is one thing," the pope said, "but another thing entirely is the 'breath' of hope, which cannot be stifled by anyone or anything."

Those who are behind bars are not the only ones who are imprisoned, the pope warned. People can also fall into "a certain hypocrisy" that judges current and formerly incarcerated "as wrongdoers for whom prison is the sole answer," he said.

"I want to tell you, every time I visit a prison, I ask myself: 'Why them and not me?' We can all make mistakes; all of us. And in one way or another, we have made mistakes," the pope said, departing from his prepared text.

Through the power of faith, Pope Francis said, repentance by those who have offended and forgiveness by those who have been wronged is possible.

"When violence is met with forgiveness, even the hearts of those who have done wrong can be conquered by the love that triumphs over every form of evil," he said. "In this way, among the victims and among those who wronged them, God raises up true witnesses and workers of mercy." 

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