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Dear friends in Christ,
If someone asked you what Jesus is like, or what kind of person he is, what would you say? The answer you give would also tell me how much he matters to you. If you ever feel like telling me, I really would love to know, as you would give me material for another pastoral letter!
We have just begun a new Christian year, and the Season of Advent reminds most of us how far behind we are with our preparations for Christmas. I don’t know how you prepare for Christmas, but I hope you are not just thinking about Christmas cards and gifts and planning meals. How do you use this time to prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus? What do you think about when you hear those words, 'the coming of Jesus'? What that means to you would tell me even more about how much Jesus matters to you. You could do so much good if you found a way of sharing that with other people, maybe your family or your friends. You would help them to find ways of saying what their faith means to them. Think about it.
Something extra is happening as we prepare for ‘the coming of Jesus’ this year. Pope Francis has asked Catholics to celebrate a Jubilee of Mercy, which begins this week. He wants us to make the Church an "oasis of mercy"; he does not mean the Church in general, but the Church that exists "in our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians" (Misericordiae vultus 12). That means you and me. The Church wherever we are should be an "oasis of mercy". The Holy Father would like us to become more aware of God’s mercy, and he suggests a variety of things we can do. He hopes the Jubilee will change us, that we will be Merciful like the Father, and that we will find ways to "contemplate God's mercy and adopt it as our lifestyle". He recognises that it is a "demanding" way of life, but assures us that is also "rich with joy and peace" (MV 13).
What does the Jubilee of Mercy have to do with our preparations for ‘the coming of Jesus’? Well, let us think what happened to the world at the first Christmas. We say it at Mass every Sunday: the Son of God "was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man"; in the Apostles' Creed it is simpler: Jesus Christ was "born of the Virgin Mary". It does no harm to let that sink in, because it is astonishing to claim that God "shared our human nature" (Eucharistic Prayer IV). God can seem so far from our daily life, but he could not have come closer to us than by becoming one of us.
I sometimes meet people who feel light years away from God. There are many reasons why. Some of them imagine God is so remote that he could not possibly be interested in us. Like most of your priests, I have been really sad to hear people say that God has no room for them because of something bad they have done. So many people are thoroughly convinced they are beyond redemption.
Christmas says that is not true! Saint Anselm asked, "Why did God become man?" My answer is simple – it is because we matter. And that means all of us – each and every one of us. Pope Francis has given us a fantastic Christmas present by asking us to focus on how merciful God is. He wants every sinner to feel at home in God’s house.
One of his favourite Gospel stories is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Do you remember how the young man plans his speech for when he gets back home? The surprise is that his father does not want to hear it: he is simply overjoyed that his son is home. Jesus told that story to convince us that any sinner who wants to come back to God will be made welcome.
Pope Francis asks priests to make sure this happens when they hear our confessions; they are not to ask probing questions, but to recognise that the fact someone wants to be reconciled with God is an unspoken "plea for help and mercy" (MV 17). God coming close to us at Christmas is mirrored every time one of us wants to come back to God. Please tell the people who stay away – the ones priests often can’t reach – that this is their home; they will be welcomed back, without fuss, but with love.
Christmas makes us more aware than usual of poor, homeless and lonely people living among us. That is a blessing, because it helps us to "enter deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy" (MV 15). Pope Francis has a rare understanding of what he calls the "wisdom of poor neighbourhoods", where people live "an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome" (Laudato sii’ 149).
He is convinced that it is not enough to understand poor people’s situations; rather, like Jesus, we must allow their plight to touch us deep inside: "the Gospel of mercy troubles our consciences, prevents us from taking the suffering of others for granted, and points out the way of responding which ... finds expression in works of spiritual and corporal mercy". (Message Pope Francis for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016).
I invite you all to make a Pilgrimage of Mercy during this Jubilee Year. You can visit the holy doors in the Metropolitan Cathedral, Holy Cross Church in St Helens or Saint Mary’s Church in Leyland, and materials will be available to help you make the most of your pilgrimage. Dates have already been fixed for pilgrimages from all our Pastoral Areas.
In the meantime, let us use the Season of Advent well, to prepare to welcome Jesus among us, and let us ask the Queen of Heaven to turn her eyes of mercy towards us all.
With my prayers and every good wish for you and your families for a blessed Advent and peaceful Christmas,
Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP
Archbishop of Liverpool