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to be read to the congregation on the First Sunday of Lent 2016

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Only a few weeks had passed after my arrival in Berlin as your Archbishop when the Holy Father opened the Year of Mercy, which will of course shape the Lenten season this year. The first six months as Archbishop on Berlin brought me great riches of contacts and experiences. Already I got to know many parishes and pastoral areas, while visiting kindergartens and schools, homes for asylum seekers, hospitals and consultation offices. We celebrated our faith in Eucharistic services, in solemn liturgies of baptism and confirmation, and in all sorts of meetings with you. So many lay people, priests, pastoral workers and religious gave me a wonderful welcome. I am also grateful for the opportunity to pay some short visits to our neighbouring dioceses, and for the good cooperation with the Apostolic Nuncio. In various groups and councils I could speak with you about the development and perspectives for the future of our diocese, and I had contact with many representatives of Government, the media, culture and the civil society in general.

I am happy to state that you all received me with a great openness, for which I am most grateful, and so you allowed a happy beginning to my start as bishop of Berlin. How much creativity, what wonderful strength and joy was I able to witness!

But I also met a great deal of suffering, worry and neediness, I met people who seem exhausted, who fail to see a direction where life may lead them, people filled with anxiety as they look back on their sad discovery that apparently no one and nothing is reliable, who suffer from the feeling of being completely let down.

There is one thing that these people miss in their lives, that is, they miss the experience of mercy. Mercy is the name for a profound sympathy, for having a heart for one another, the readiness to perceive the other with an eye of love and appreciation, and then offer support to make life full and worthwhile. Wherever we experience this kind of mercy, we revive, breathing fresh air. No one of us can do without this experience of finding mercy.

The German word for mercy, “Barmherzigkeit”, indicates the core of this disposition. We all hope to meet people who show us that they have a loving heart for us. Mercy, understood in this way, is never something patronizing, a gesture from high above; it simply reflects the fundamental attitude of a mature human togetherness.

A good number of people regard this idea of a merciful life as an illusion. Their sentiment tells them that life irresistibly heads for the moment of death when each one is all alone, leaving everyone and everything behind, and ultimately sink into the cold darkness of nothing.

Yet we Christians profess and proclaim that human beings are created and carried by God, who has a heart for each one of us. He has called us into this life. He walks with us the whole course of this life, in joy and in sorrow. His love has no limit, and in the hour of death he welcomes us anew, just as the merciful father in the gospel receives his son who was lost. This message of a final homecoming, that Jesus Christ brought us, speaks of the very core of our Christian faith. Other religions too believe in the mercy of God. But only the Christian faith holds that God loves all human persons so radically that he really shares our neediness, our misery, our anxiety, our loneliness. He even shares our death, despised as a criminal on the cross. Our Christian faith tells us that God does not simply address a word of mercy to us, but he is always with us, in the years of life as well as in the hour of death.

We as Church have the task, especially during this Holy Year of Mercy, to awaken a fresh sense for this message of mercy in our communities, and to create occasions for people to experience this mercy in a personal way. Mercy is not simply one of the many properties of God that we might enumerate. Mercy is the core and essence of God. Therefore, as a manifestation of God, mercy must be given a concrete expression in our ecclesial community, as well as in our togetherness with other people, and even with the whole of creation. Whatever our work and endeavour, it must flow from, and has to be measured by, this spirit of mercy. To be clear, certain hard words of criticism or certain provocative actions may in fact also be expressions of mercy. For mercy must not be misunderstood as cheap softness, resulting from lack of character. Self-criticism too, the critical mind for one's own talk and behaviour, remains necessary for each one of us. As Church, we are constantly obliged to examine our words, deeds, rules and structures whether they are in line with mercy. Not only what we say or do is important, but also the manner how we say or do it. We have to develop and always improve a good culture of togetherness. That is the only way how an individual and our Christian community can become credible and convincing so as to have an impact on society at large.

Is the message of Jesus merely a dreamy desire or is it a concrete and effective reality in our lives? Moreover, is it possible already now in daily life to catch a glimpse of this merciful God who is said to carry us at all times? Recently, on 17th January in the church of St. Paulus, administered by the Dominicans in the Oldenburgstraße, we opened a Holy Door for the duration of this Holy Year of Mercy. The Holy Door is meant to be a symbol for what we intend with the celebration of this Year of Mercy. I wish to invite you all – especially now during Lent in preparation for Easter – to pass once through this door, keeping the following points in your mind:

* The Holy Door is not the main entrance of St. Paulus, but a little side door. Thus it reminds us of what Jesus said about the narrow gate leading to the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 7:12). That is certainly not to the liking of proud and self-important people. The narrow gate is for the poor, the little ones, for humble people. To encounter the mercy of God we have to place our life with all its poverty, weakness and imperfection before God, with the prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a poor creature!” In this attitude our human poverty begins to shine in blessed light.

* The Gate to Heaven, to a life with God, was opened for us by Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection. The door is open; now it is up to us to pass through the gate. Let us confidently risk taking this step towards the merciful God. Without this step no one can experience God's mercy. We have to cross the threshold and give our heart to God. We use the word “creed” for the faith, it comes from the Latin “credere” which is a contraction of the two words “cor dare”, that is, giving one's heart. That is the price of the faith, without any discount. Sermons, catechism, religious instruction are never a by-pass. For less than the heart we cannot meet the loving merciful God. Do I truly offer my heart to God, day after day? Do I really try to love God with all my heart and all my strength, day after day? Or do I remain standing outside in front of the open gate, letting God wait for me in vain?

* Innumerable doors stand open for us, thanks to our modern society. Yet there follows the temptation not to choose anyone of them once and for all, but instead to put a foot in everywhere, though merely for a try, remaining uncommitted, always ready to withdraw again. Hence we find less and less people willing to accept tasks that will tie them firmly in the long run. They shun lasting obligations and feel incapable of a permanent bond to another person. The logic is: “Perhaps something or someone better may appear one day, and then ...” However, without freely binding oneself for good, no one will ever experience a deep human relationship, let alone a deep relationship with God. The Holy Door is not like a revolving door, which can lead you inside and just as well transport you back from where you came. God is great, and we can approach him only by the magnanimous decision to pass over to his side, with all our strength, courage and determination, that is, to pass through the Holy Door.

* The Holy Door always guides us to human beings, inside in the church or, when we leave, outside in the world. There is no road to God that bypasses your human neighbour. When I refuse to show them mercy, I myself will never experience mercy.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful, they shall obtain mercy.” (Mt 5:7) In the measure we dish God's mercy out to others and share with them, we ourselves will obtain mercy. Everything great and precious in human life springs not from clinging, but from sharing. The works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal, drive us poor Christians in a particular way to share our lives and livelihood with the poor and to be at their side. These traditional works can inspire us, particularly now during Lent, to examine our life style.

Nevertheless, mercy is never an achievement that we have to produce. It will always be a gift that God grants us and which we may receive in all our spiritual poverty. Confession is the sacrament of mercy. Christ gave us this means, and I feel depressed when I hear many Catholics say: “No, thanks, I don't need that.” The truth is, we live of God's mercy. Therefore I ardently invite you in this Year of Mercy to go to confession to experience and celebrate God's mercy. I urge all priests to let the sacrament of confession have all the attention this invitation of Christ deserves, in their personal lives as much as in their preaching.

I gladly look forward to making our way together through this Holy Year of Mercy.

Berlin, on the First Sunday of Lent 2016
+ Heiner Koch
Archbishop of Berlin