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January 11, 2016

Although God's mercy is the recurrent theme of the current papacy, Pope Francis is not the only recent pope for whom it has been a major theme. St. John Paul II, for example, made it the focus of his second encyclical, Rich in Mercy, issued in 1980.

Pope Francis, in fact, sees the theme of mercy as one way of keeping the Second Vatican Council alive as an event and in our hearts.

Vatican II was not a rupture with the Catholic past, but it did stir up a new spirit, a spirit St. John XXIII invoked at the beginning of the council when he said the Church now "prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity."

When one speaks of the spirit of the council, there is the inevitable reaction that one is putting this ill-defined spirit above the letter of the council's teaching, a spirit which can be used to rationalize innovations at odds with the Church's teaching.

Two things should be said in response. First, "innovations" which contradict Church teaching are surely not part of the council's spirit. Second, one main point of Vatican II is that the spirit is as important as formal teaching. The Catholic faith is not simple adherence to a list of doctrines; it also includes ways of being and ways of acting.

Crucial to the spirit was St. John's medicine of mercy. Also crucial is Blessed Paul VI's summing up of the council: "Instead of depressing diagnoses, encouraging remedies; instead of direful predictions, messages of trust issued from the council to the present-day world. The modern world's values were not only respected but honoured, its efforts approved, its aspirations purified and blessed."

Respect for the values of the modern world represented a major shift for the Church. It had spent more than a century condemning modernity and yearning for a return to an imagined mediaeval golden age.

These are tough lessons to learn. Making the spirit of mercy of equal importance to the letter of doctrine and honouring modern values demand a major shift in culture. Laws can be easily altered; changing a culture involves much pain and groaning.

It is not surprising that 50 years after Vatican II, the culture shift is ongoing, and that Pope Francis has had to force it into the centre of our attention by declaring a Year of Mercy. The Church's culture will not change unless the Church consciously changes it.

Still, that is what this papacy is about. Those who elected Pope Francis got more than they bargained for. However, the pope is not throwing out Tradition. He is striving to make the spirit of Vatican II blow through every corner of the Church. The Year of Mercy is an integral part of such striving.