“In my opinion, the strongest message of the Lord is mercy.”  These words, from Pope Francis, are a summary of what might be his highest priority.

Francis has spoken frequently about the central role of mercy in the life of the Church. In fact, he described his entire papacy as a “Kairos” of mercy, a privileged moment in God’s plan of salvation during which the abundant mercy of God is most visible. Earlier this spring, in his annual Lenten message, Francis called on Christian communities to become “islands of mercy,” transforming parishes, communities and groups into places where God’s mercy becomes palpable. 

In addition to his eloquent words, Pope Francis has acted boldly to emphasize his commitment to mercy.  During the celebration of this year’s Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper, for example, he washed the feet of 12 prisoners at Rome’s Rebibbia prison.  During the ceremony, he told the inmates “Jesus never tires of loving.”  His remarkable example also includes the creation of a plan to build showers for homeless individuals who sleep in and around St. Peter’s Square -- as well as inviting them to a special tour of the Sistine Chapel followed by lunch in the museum’s restaurant.    Finally, Francis’ great dedication to mercy has also been evident in his frequent, public reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as well as his encouragement to others to do the same.

To extend his focus on mercy even further, Francis has announced an Extraordinary Year of Mercy.  It will begin on December 8th, a date intentionally selected because it is both the feast of the Immaculate Conception as well as the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the final session of the Second Vatican Council.  The year of mercy will conclude on November 20, 2016, the feast of Christ the King. 

There are, of course, different ways of thinking about mercy.  Some theologians reflect on the concept through the ancient Latin term misericordia, which focuses on having a “heart” with the poor.   Other theologians describe mercy as the willingness to enter into the chaos on another’s life and have suggested that being inclined to mercy is fundamental to what it means to be Catholic.  Ultimately, God’s mercy is mysterious; in a very real way, it is the essence of God, as revealed by the life, death and resurrection Jesus.