Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Lent will be here soon, beginning on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10. The Lenten season is a time when the church calls us to deepen our prayer lives, practice fasting and give added attention to doing good works. These things strengthen us as we walk the path of Christian conversion and discipleship in preparation for the promise of Easter.
During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said the season of Lent also offers us “a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy.” I have been thinking a lot over the last several months about our Holy Father’s words regarding mercy and his encouragement to reflect on how we experience and practice it in our own lives, in our parishes and in our diocese.
This is why I chose mercy as the subject of my first pastoral letter to you. My hope is that, during Lent, you will read and reflect on the letter. Its title, “Be Merciful, Just as Your Father is Merciful,” reflects the theme chosen by Pope Francis for this jubilee year, and it includes questions for reflection that could be used by families or study groups in parishes, schools, religious communities and other Catholic organizations in the diocese.
While Pope Francis has drawn renewed attention to the theme of mercy, it was an important topic as well for Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. God’s merciful and forgiving love, despite humanity’s sinfulness, is also a central theme of the Bible.
Jesus himself reveals the power of divine mercy in the way he lived his life and in the lessons he taught his disciples. A number of parables that Jesus told illustrating the Father’s mercy are some of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. These include the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and the workers in the vineyard.
As Pope Francis has said, mercy is the very foundation of the church’s life. At the start of the Year of Mercy in December, I opened a special Holy Door at the Cathedral of St. Mary, and I encourage all of the faithful to pass through the door as a sign of conversion and recommitment to a life rooted in mercy. I also invite you to visit the shrines in the diocese that I have designated as pilgrimage sites and to pray at least once at Mass or another liturgical event with our religious communities. These can be wonderful opportunities to reflect on the place of mercy in your life.
The Year of Mercy is also an opportune time to refocus on the sacrament of reconciliation — one of the most powerful and tangible ways to experience God’s mercy. On March 4, the fourth Friday of Lent, the Diocese of St. Cloud will hold a 12-hour festival of forgiveness during which the sacrament of reconciliation will be available at designated churches from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. This special event is for all the Catholic faithful, including those who have been away from the sacraments for a while.
In addition to our own personal experience of God’s mercy, however, we must also be bringers of mercy to the rest of the world. In my letter, I offer a challenge: Identify at least one thing you can do this year to make God’s mercy present in the diocese. Perhaps it is reaching out to someone in need of forgiveness, or seeking forgiveness from someone you have wronged. It could be performing one or more of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy for someone in need of assistance, healing or reassurance of God’s love.
There are two pressing issues in our diocese that especially need attention: performing concrete works of mercy in the spirit of the Good Samaritan to welcome our immigrant and refugee neighbors, including our Latino and Somali brothers and sisters; and showing mercy to our planet, God’s creation, by practicing responsible stewardship for the sake of present and future generations — something our Holy Father called for in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
My hope is that this Lent and throughout the Year of Mercy, you will experience God’s mercy more deeply in your own life and be the face of his mercy to all those you meet.
Bishop Donald J. Kettler