By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 19, 2016
CONYERS—Peggy Sandy waited for more than two hours ahead of several hundred pilgrims.
“I’m trying to grow in my faith and this is part of it,” she said.
A member of St. Pius X Church, Conyers, for Sandy the hours of waiting for the opening of the Holy Door at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit was worth it. “It is just something I am drawn to. I wanted to arrive early so I could be up front. I have peace.”
At the spiritual landmark on Feb. 2, the line of people waiting stretched the length of more than a football field. Knights of Columbus members directed cars as grassy lawns became parking lots.
Standing in front of the abbey church’s large wooden door, encircled by greens and yellow and red roses, Deacon Dennis Dorner, the chancellor of the Atlanta Archdiocese, read from the papal document announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” read Deacon Dorner. “Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory then swung a thurible of incense around the door and prayed that believers “like the prodigal son, come home to you, merciful Father, and to your loving embrace.”
The doors then opened into a darkened stone church where the walls were washed in blue from light shining through stained glass windows.
The crowds joined Trappist monks and three-dozen members of religious communities who serve in the archdiocese for vespers. The church was standing room only as parents carted youngsters on their backs and seated crowds filled the transept.
The gathering commemorated both the closing of the special Year of Consecrated Life in the Catholic Church and the opening of another Holy Door in the Atlanta Archdiocese for the Year of Mercy. A Holy Door was also opened Feb. 2 at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta. The last of seven doors will be opened Feb. 22 at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross.
Joan Hostetter, a parishioner of St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek, carpooled with others for the 40-mile trip. She was moved by the diversity of people who took time on a Tuesday afternoon to stand in line and take part.
“It is a glowing testimony of the love of God for all of us,” she said.
During the Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, Hostetter said she wants to be more help to her husband as he leads the parish food pantry. Also she wants “to not be so lazy with my prayer life.”
The office staff of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church made the trip from Carrollton to experience the event. Jacinta Yoder keeps the parish books.
“They opened the doors of mercy, symbolically, and as Christians, we need to cross the door of mercy and have mercy on others, forgive them,” said Yoder.
She attends the First Baptist Church, Lithia Springs. Yoder said with the large size of the Catholic Church, it would be wonderful if everyone crosses through the doors during this Year of Mercy and becomes more generous and kind.
She said, “Every time I have the opportunity to learn more about God, that improves my spiritual life.”
The crowd heard of Jesus’ mercy in the proclamation and in St. Luke’s Gospel account of the prodigal son. “If we are God’s people, why don’t we have mercy on others?” she asked.
“God’s highway of mercy is wide”
The Year of Consecrated Life, celebrated throughout the Catholic world, began in November 2014 and closed on Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life. The year, which was an initiative of Pope Francis, celebrated men and women in consecrated life and also served as an invitation for Catholics to consider a religious vocation.
The vespers service included hymns, singing of psalms, a reading from the Gospel of Luke, and prayers.
Archbishop Gregory in his homily talked about the special affinity people feel for this Year of Mercy.
“There is no one sitting here who does not need God’s mercy,” he said, listing religious sisters, priests and himself among those in need.
The year is a time to act “more merciful, more forgiving, more generous,” he said. There are former friends and family members who remain estranged although the source of the disagreement has long been forgotten, he said. He encouraged people to patch up past hurts. Archbishop Gregory offered prayers for Brandon Astor Jones, a death row inmate executed Feb. 3, and for victims of his violence.
For Archbishop Gregory, his least favorite part of Atlanta is the merger of Georgia 400 and Interstate 285. He said its gridlock is from too many cars cramming into a too small roadway. He contrasted that congestion with God’s plan.
“God’s highway of mercy is wide … and there is room for us all,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory saluted the members of the religious communities. “Thank you for the prayers you offer for this church. Thank you for the ministry you have exercised and continue to exercise so generously. Thank you for your witness for Christ.”
The special Year of Consecrated Life overlapped by two months the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time focused on God’s love for individuals.
After vespers, the group of religious retired to the cloister for aperitifs and conversation before dinner hosted by the monastery. Some were asked how they intend to live out the Year of Mercy or advice for others.
Legionary of Christ Father Matthew Kaderabek said his goal is for students to “see the beauty of the gift of confession” and to “strengthen their friendship with Christ.”
Chaplain at Pinecrest Academy, Cumming, he makes the sacrament available during religion classes. He has seen more Catholics visit. Even non-Catholic students visit him, where instead he offers counseling.
“The human soul needs to confess,” he said.
Marist Father Ralph Olek teaches at Marist School. In the classroom, he is strict, no bullying. Any student who commits an infraction writes a letter of apology. Parents must sign it too. Accountability is different from mercy, he said.
Before his ordination over 41 years ago, he vowed to make the sacrament of reconciliation a positive experience.
“No matter what, God’s mercy is always there, no matter what you do. This year is backing my philosophy up,” he said.
Sister Louise Sommer has been a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 65 years. Her ministry is pastoral outreach at St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville. She spends much of her time with families grieving a death of a loved one. A lesson she’s learned is mercy does not mean activity. Being available is a big part of mercy, she said.
“You don’t always have to do things. You just have to be there,” she said.
A mainstay of ministry in the archdiocese, the Missouri native arrived here in 1966.
She said, “The hardest person to be merciful with is yourself, so be merciful to yourself.”
Photo Gallery: Photos of the Holy Door opening and vespers by Michael Alexander, staff photographer, are available for purchase here.