Pope Francis surprised many when on the airplane ride from Sri Lanka to the Philippines earlier this year, he announced his desire to canonize Junípero Serra, founder of the California missions, during his trip to the United States in September.
During Mass at the Catholic University of America, he explained that Serra “learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met.”
“Keep moving forward” was Serra’s motto, the pope said. “He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life.”
We begin a year dedicated to mercy. A jubilee.
“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” is how Pope Francis begins his introduction to the year, Misericordiae Vultus. Reading Serra and Francis side by side, it is no wonder holding up Serra’s life in clear view during his visit to the United States was a priority for Francis.
In one of four Father Serra sermons translated by Rose Marie Beebe for a book on Serra for Oklahoma University Press, the saint explains that God is “boundless” in his benevolence and magnanimity. “He is complete mercy, complete love, and complete tenderness toward men, even toward the most ungrateful sinners.”
Pope Francis didn’t invent mercy, but he sees how woefully absent it can be in our lives. We don’t realize God really, truly does want us to be reconciled to him.
With this year and so much that he does he extends the welcome that is encounter with Jesus Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation. He describes himself as a sinner because that’s why Jesus Christ is such the miracle of his life — because he needs a savior. That’s why any of us ever walk in the doors of a church, why we need healing and restoration and to give God thanks and praise for what he does for us: Giving us himself.
Or, as St. Junípero put it in that same sermon: “The Lord wishes all people to attain the ends for which he compassionately created us. He yearns that we might believe that he is the way, the truth and the life and that we might advance toward the salvation he wills for us. For that reason he extends the golden bonds of his goodwill and love to entice us and unite us to himself.”
Taste and see the “sweetness” of the Lord, Father Serra pleads in his sermon, quoting Scripture throughout.
Those who do not know anything about this sweetness and do not taste it do not have any appetite for it. But someone who has tried it just once discovers that he has an increasing appetite for it, for he finds it very soothing.
As the Lord himself says, “Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.” Thus the Psalmist … invites us to taste it before fully committing ourselves to it. “Taste and see.”
St. Junípero emphasizes: “Do not think, Christian, that the statement about the Lord being sweet and gentle is true of him only in his glory with the blessed ones. It refers to the Lord in everything, with everyone, at all times.”
You can begin to see, can’t you, how Pope Francis would find St. Junípero a saint we need to know, need to emulate in his missionary work and welcome?
As Francis writes about the jubilee year: “The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person. The Spouse of Christ must pattern her behavior after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception.
“In the present day, as the Church is charged with the task of the new evangelization, the theme of mercy needs to be proposed again and again with new enthusiasm and renewed pastoral action. It is absolutely essential for the Church and for the credibility of her message that she herself live and testify to mercy. Her language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road that leads to the Father,” the pope writes.
“The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of oneself. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.”
You get the idea, don’t you? In a world where people tend to associate our Church with hot-button controversial issues and prohibition, starting here is an approach worth trying during what can seem like quite unmerciful times, where the truth of teachings cannot penetrate hearts that can be so hurt and feel excluded.
We’ve seen on more than one occasion Pope Francis himself approach the sacrament of penance — within view of live television cameras. It’s a gesture that heralds “taste and see” from the rooftops.
It also tenderly invites conversion. As Father Serra puts it in the same sermon: “The Lord calls all of us with loving voices when we leave behind not only our faults but the bad habits and situations in our lives which lead to these faults, and love him alone.” He is standing at the door knocking, Father Serra emphasizes, again quoting Scripture.
Pope Francis says: “Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!”
He said something similar during the canonization Mass for Father Serra: “We all know the struggles of everyday life. So much seems to stand in the way of this invitation to rejoice. Our daily routine can often lead us to a kind of glum apathy which gradually becomes a habit, with a fatal consequence: our hearts grow numb.”
Sometimes it’s all so overwhelming, the heart protects itself by closing itself off, by holding back. But when we’re in this mode, we’re not living the Christian life.
We don’t know just how gratuitous the Father’s love for us is, a love that restores, redeems, that is risen. Go to the source, let people see eternal mercy of our Creator. Heralds of the Gospel help this mission work. Francis, by celebrating Father Serra, helps us see.
Father Serra preaches: “I beg you to let him in. Do this simply because, in his infinite mercy, he loves you.”
As Pope Francis repeats himself and emphasizes this mercy, God’s forgiveness again and again, Father Serra says about that merciful love of God: “Remember this in your heart. Because if you know how to taste the sweet voices of the Lord, you will assure yourself of a more rational life and you will resist the voices with which your enemy wants to corrupt you over and over again.”
Something rational. That’s a reason in itself for a jubilee!
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice” (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com).