When Pope Francis announced the Holy Year of Mercy, he offered it as a special time for Catholics to receive blessings and pardons from God. In turn, people were asked to offer mercy to others in the form of forgiveness and assistance.
Bishop Richard J. Malone designated seven churches in the Diocese of Buffalo with "Doors of Mercy." Mercy Doors are a special designated entrance into a Church for pilgrims coming to experience the special graces of a Jubilee Year.
"The purpose of this is to invite people to come in, to become closer to God, to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, and also to receive indulgence, which (Pope) Francis most beautifully and, in a completely modern way, explains as the overabundance of God's grace for us," said Father Czeslaw M. Krysa, director of the Office of Worship, at the beginning of the Year of Mercy.
At St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo, copies of Pope Francis' prayer, which opened the Year of Mercy back in December 2015, have been flying off the shelves.
"One of the things I have found to be quite good, very gratifying, is that when we opened the Mercy Door, we took the prayer that Pope Francis composed for the Year of Mercy and we made copies for people and it's really been amazing how many have been picking up these prayers," said Father Peter Drilling, rector of the cathedral.
Printed copies are available under a wooden framed painting of the crucified Christ that rests by the front door and near the side altar of St. Anthony.
The Year of Mercy has drawn Catholics to seek churches with holy doors. Tour groups from Ontario, Canada, have crossed the border to visit area houses of worship and pass through the doors. St. Joseph Cathedral sees a tour once or twice a month representing the mixed ethnicities that belong to the Catholic faith. Many Filipinos and East Indians have visited the cathedral.
"We will regularly get a call whether we can accommodate a group coming on the bus because they want to visit the holy doors," Father Drilling said. "They might also be going to the cathedral in Rochester or the cathedral in Syracuse. They're coming from Canada, and often they will bring their own priest with them. Then they ask if they may also celebrate Mass here, which, of course, we welcome them doing. That's been another blessing in all of this."
Corpus Christi Church, located on the corner of Clark and Kent, just behind the Broadway Market, has seen tours come through strictly to see their Holy Doors. Tours travel from church to church to experience the graces of the doors.
One tour group made quite an impression on parish secretary Chris Cooley. After calling ahead, a busload of Filipino pilgrims from Canada arrived on a Saturday.
"They stayed here for about 15 minutes. It was meaningful for them that we had the Mercy Doors," said Cooley. "It was extraordinary, their reaction to it."
The experience opened Cooley's eyes to how cultures differ from one nationality to another.
"Usually when I open the church, I open the door closest to the rectory," Cooley said. "That's where the alarm is, so I can do all the business. But the people did not want to walk through that door. They made me go across. I felt as if I was going out of my way to open this door. Then when I saw how much it meant to them to pass through this Holy Door as if it was a once in a lifetime experience, I kind of felt ashamed of myself to think it was an inconvenience to me."
The parish was one stop in the New York Landmark Conservatory Sacred Sites tour in May. Visitors came to learn about the architecture and history about the 107-year-old church, then took advantage of the situation and walked through doors.
In Olean, St. Mary of the Angels decided to draw attention to their holy doors by having Brett Swiatek, from Swiatek Studios, create a custom monogram, "MD" for Mercy Door, hand painted in gold on both sides of the 100-year-old oak doors installed when the church was built. A vintage gold priest's stole is draped over the door forming an "M," naturally.
At the 45th annual parish festival, Father Gregory Dobson and Father David Tourville, pastor and parochial vicar respectively, offered confessions Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Confession is one of the qualifications for the graces of the Holy Door.
"We were very impressed with the quality and the number of confessions," said Father Dobson. "Many of the people were visitors (from out of town). I heard again and again, when they heard the announcement, it was like a call from heaven: this is the time, go and do it. That happened repeatedly."
Father Dobson and Father Tourville heard about 25 confessions over the weekend. The numbers might not seem high, but keep in mind, people were coming to the festival to hear music and visit the beer tent.
Father Dobson said they created the right atmosphere. Sacred music played through the newly renovated church. Because there were no long lines, priests had time to sit with people and talk with them.
"I think the grace of God. That's what they testified," Father Dobson said. "When they heard that we were having confessions, they said something stirred in them. I think that's how the grace of God sometimes works. Something stirred in them and they felt this was the time I should do this."
Chautauqua County's holy doors hang on the front of St. Hyacinth Church, one of two worship sites used by Blessed Mary Angela Parish, Dunkirk. The parish held two major events to mark the Year of Mercy. Back in January, Maureen Digan, cured by a miracle accepted by the Vatican that led to the beatification of St. Faustina Kowalska, gave a witness talk.
On the World Day of Prayer, Bishop Malone blessed the holy door and led divine Mercy Stations of the Cross at St. Hyacinth Church.
During the week, the church is open for visitors who wish to tour the church or participate in Eucharistic Adoration.
"The door is quite visible from the street. There's a beautiful sign, 'Door of Mercy,' right above it. So, people have seen it," said Father Matt Nycz, pastor.