ROME — Already regarded by many as the “Pope of Mercy,” Francis offered another motive for the title with the surprise announcement on Friday of an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, saying he wants to make it evident that the Church’s mission is as a witness of compassion.

“Let us not forget that God forgives and God forgives always,” Francis said, repeating the words he used during his first Angelus as pope, on March 17, 2013. “Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness.”

Having already described his entire papacy as a “Kairos” of mercy, meaning a privileged moment in God’s plan of salvation, Francis said the time is ripe for that message.

“I am convinced that the whole Church — which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time,” the pope said.

Francis made the announcement in St. Peter’s Basilica while celebrating a penitential service on Friday, the second anniversary of his pontificate.

Traditionally, every 25 years the popes proclaim a holy year, which features special celebrations and pilgrimages, strong calls for conversion and repentance, and the offer of special opportunities to experience God’s grace through the sacraments, especially confession. Extraordinary holy years, like the Holy Year of Mercy, are less frequent, but offer the same opportunities for spiritual growth.

The jubilee will begin on Dec. 8, the day Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and which this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council. It will end on Nov. 20, 2016, on the feast of Christ the King.

During December’s ceremony, Pope Francis will open the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica, which is normally bricked up. The last one to do so was St. John Paul II, who opened it in 2000.

The ceremony served as the opening of a worldwide celebration, “24 Hours for the Lord.” At the pope’s request, Catholic churches will remain open Friday and Saturday to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as confession) to the faithful.

Francis said people shouldn’t be afraid to approach a priest and confess their sins, something he did at the end of the penitential service, before getting into a confessional himself to hear the confessions of a group of faithful.

According to the pope, in the confessional one has “the certainty of being welcomed in the name of God and understood, despite our misery.”

“The greater the sin, the greater the love, which the Church must express toward those who convert,” Francis said.

“Coming out of the confessional,” the pope said during the ceremony, “we will feel the strength [of God’s grace] that restores life and returns us with enthusiasm to faith. We have one real confessor, and He defends us always!”

The biblical theme the pope has chosen for the jubilee year is “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” something that Francis said applies “especially to confessors.”

The Holy Year of Mercy will be organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and it’s designed to widen access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The tradition of Holy Years started 700 years ago. Since then, the Catholic Church has celebrated 26 jubilees. Of those, only three have been “extraordinary” (including this on called by Francis); the last was called by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983 to mark the 1,950 years after the death of Jesus.

Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.