VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met with 650 of the 1,000 priests who have been chosen as “missionaries of mercy,” telling them to show the tenderness of God’s love to those who confess to them during the Jubliee of Mercy.
“Let us not forget: Before us there is not sin, but the repentant sinner: a person who feels the desire of being welcomed and forgiven” and who no longer desires to be far from God, the Pope said Feb. 9.
He called to mind the biblical passage in which Noah, after the flood, got drunk from the wine he made in his vineyard and was found lying naked inside his tent. While his son Ham laughed at him, Noah’s other sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him with a blanket.
When speaking with those who come to the confessional, as priests and as missionaries “we are not called to judge with a sense of superiority, as if we were immune to sin,” Francis said, but are instead asked to take on the attitude of Shem and Japheth, who protected their father from shame.
“To be a confessor according to the heart of Christ means to cover the sinner with the blanket of mercy, so that they are no longer ashamed and can recover the joy of their filial dignity.”
Pope Francis met with the missionaries of mercy in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace to offer his reflections on their special role during the jubilee. He will give them their official mandate during his Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Feb. 10.
Though more than 1,000 priests have been selected as missionaries of mercy, only 650 were able to make it to Rome for their official commission.
Selected from every continent, the missionaries, among other things, will be given the faculties to pardon sins in cases otherwise reserved to the Holy See.
Though there are several such sins, the Holy See has clarified that the faculties of the missionaries of mercy are “limited exclusively” to just four: profaning the Eucharistic species by taking them away or keeping them for a sacrilegious purpose; the use of physical force against the Roman Pontiff; the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shall not kill”); and a direct violation against the sacramental seal by a confessor.
In his speech, the Pope said that to be a missionary of mercy is a responsibility that has been entrusted to them “because it asks you to be first-person witnesses of God’s closeness and of his way of loving.”
He clarified that this does not mean our way of loving, “which is always limited and at times contradictory,” but consists of God’s own style of loving and forgiving, “which is precisely mercy.”
Francis then brought up several points for the missionaries to keep in mind while carrying out their role throughout the year.
The first thing he asked them to remember: “You are called to express the maternity of the Church.”
“The Church is mother,” not only because she continuously generates new children in the faith, but also because she nurtures that faith and offers the forgiveness of God and new life, “(which is) the fruit of conversion,” he said.
If this perception of the Church as mother fails “due to our rigidity, it would be a serious damage, first of all for faith itself, because it would prevent the penitent from being inserted into the body of Christ,” the Pope said, adding that it would also limit the penitent’s ability to feel like a part of the community.
What the missionaries are called to express instead is a Church who, as a mother, “welcomes anyone who approaches her, knowing that, through her, they are inserted into Christ.”
No matter what the sin is that has been confessed, “every missionary is called to remember their own sinful existence and humbly place themselves as a channel of God’s mercy,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis then underlined the importance of the desire of forgiveness in the hearts of those who come to confession.
This desire is the fruit of both grace and its action in peoples’ lives, he said, reminding the missionaries that “this desire is the beginning of conversion.” Conversion, he noted, begins when the heart recognizes the evil it has done but turns to God with the hope of obtaining forgiveness.
People’s desire for forgiveness is strengthened when they decide “in their own hearts to change their lives, and they don’t want to sin anymore,” Francis explained. He told the missionaries to “give a lot of space for this desire for God and for his forgiveness.”
In his final point, the Pope pointed to “a component which is not spoken of much, but which is rather crucial: shame.”
It’s not easy to come before another man, a representative of God, and confess one’s sins, he noted, explaining that shame “is an intimate feeling that affects one’s personal life and requires an attitude of respect and encouragement on the part of the confessor.”
Pointing to the image of Noah naked in the tent, Pope Francis said the passage, to him, emphasizes the importance of the role of a confessor.
“Before us there is a nude person, with weaknesses and limits, with the shame of being a sinner,” he said, and he urged the missionaries to always remember that it is a repentant sinner who comes before them.
Francis then noted that it’s not “the club of judgment” that brings lost sheep back to the flock, but personal holiness, which he said is the true the source of renewal and reform within the Church.
“Holiness is nurtured by love and knows how to bring upon itself the weight of those who are most weak,” he said, explaining that the role of a missionary of mercy is to carry the sinner “on his own back” and console him or her with “the strength of compassion.”
The Pope told the missionaries, when they feel burdened by the weight of the sins confessed to them as well as their own personal limitations and lack of words, to put their trust “in the strength of mercy, which goes out to everyone as a love which knows no bounds.”
He closed his address by assuring the missionaries of his prayers and asking that Mary would assist and intercede for them in their service during the Jubilee of Mercy.