ROME — One of the signature moments of the Jubilee Year of Mercy — the “sending forth” of the “missionaries of mercy” — was marked in Rome by a warm fraternal encounter, a renewed focus on the sacrament of reconciliation and an emphasis on the symbolic power of Pope Francis’ gesture.
Pope Francis announced last year that the jubilee would include priests designated as “missionaries of mercy” to be sent out with the authorization to absolve in confession even those rare sins usually reserved to the Holy See for forgiveness. Since then, there were many questions about whether this was really needed, if priests would be interested and what they precisely would be authorized to do.
Whether they were needed was clarified by Pope Francis himself, who, when meeting the missionaries of mercy the evening before Ash Wednesday, told them that they were to be “witnesses of the closeness of God.” The point is not whether there is a great need for very rare and grave sins — breaking the confessional seal, for example — to be forgiven as a practical matter, but that, in the Year of Mercy, the Church is doing everything she can to throw open the doors of the confessional — as it were, the tribunal of mercy.
As to whether priests would be interested, given that no list had been published about who the missionaries of mercy were, it was only in Rome that they became known. Clearly there was great interest, as approximately 1,100 were selected by the Holy See on the advice of bishops and religious superiors, and the majority who were in Rome were enthusiastic about their mission of preaching about mercy and helping people live more intensely the jubilee year.
The missionaries include a vast range of priests, from the newly ordained to retired, drawn from all around the world. In presenting them to the Holy Father, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, coordinator of the jubilee year, highlighted a Polish priest serving in the Canadian artic, Father Mancin Rumik of Rankin Inlet. Whether viewed from Rome or from Buenos Aires, that is the very ends of the earth!
There were certain anomalies. Some large archdioceses did not nominate any priests at all, while smaller ones nominated more than a few. Then there were the 17 missionaries of mercy from the St. Joseph Province of the Dominicans, which covers the eastern United States. That they would have more than 10% of all the American missionaries reflects a great eagerness on their part. Bishops in the eastern U.S. looking for Dominicans to preach about mercy will find an easy time of it, but there are many places where the missionaries will be quite few.
In addressing the missionaries of mercy on two occasions, at the Feb. 9 audience and then at the Ash Wednesday formal “sending forth,” Pope Francis emphasized their role as “signs of special importance.” To be effective symbols, signs do not require exact precision, and there was some uncertainty on the canonical faculties given to the missionaries in hearing confessions. Upon arriving in Rome, the priests were given Latin parchments formally “constituting” them as missionaries of mercy by name and granting them the authority to validly absolve “every and all sins, including those reserved to the Apostolic See.” This was the widest possible scope and seemed to include also sins reserved to the local bishop. A form letter was then distributed to the missionaries at the papal audience, clarifying that the faculties granted only applied to four specific sins reserved to the Holy See.
In practice though, that will make little difference, and Pope Francis devoted his remarks to encouraging the missionaries to be exemplary confessors. It is well known that many priests bristle at the frequent criticisms the Holy Father offers on how not to hear confessions, but the missionaries of mercy received warmly his advice about how to do so well. Francis emphasized two complementary aspects of the confessor. He is to “express the maternity of the Church,” the mother who cares for her children, especially when they are suffering. At the same time, confessors are to be real fathers — true pastors — not judges. The maternal dimension of the Church in mediating the paternal love of the Father is thus the task of the confessor.
The Holy Father spoke about the reality of shame and how it sometimes prevents people from approaching the sacrament. The confessor, then, is to encourage, with the “language of gestures,” a welcome and evident kindness, helping penitents to overcome their shame in view of God’s mercy.
“Do not forget: In front of us, there is no sin, just the repentant sinner,” Pope Francis said, “a person who feels the desire to be accepted and forgiven.”
That formulation struck at least this missionary of mercy as shedding new light on the sacrament of reconciliation. We often have the pious thought that we leave our sins in the confessional, but the truth is that we don’t carry them into the confessional in the first place. It is not sin itself that presents itself to Jesus in the person of the confessor. Sin cannot stand in God’s presence. Rather, it is the sinner — the repentant sinner, a person in the image of God — who comes before Christ in the person of the priest. The reality is that the penitent, even if burdened by shame, is already close to God simply by coming to confession, for the person desiring to be close to God can be confident of God’s closeness. It is the task of the confessor, in his words and in his gestures, to make this truth evident.
For the sending forth of the missionaries of mercy, the relics of Padre Pio and Leopold Mandic, two Capuchin saints famous for spending heroically long hours in the confessional, were brought to Rome. Their bodies, partially incorrupt in glass coffins, illustrating the two original “missionaries of mercy,” were presented for veneration by missionaries of mercy and were placed before the altar during the Ash Wednesday Mass.
Upon return to their homes, the missionaries of mercy will continue with their regular pastoral assignments, but are to be invited by bishops into their dioceses to preach about mercy, to encourage people to live more devotedly the jubilee year and to lead by example in hearing confessions. Their mandate expires at the conclusion of the jubilee year.
is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He has been appointed to serve as a
Jubilee Year Missionary of Mercy by the
Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.