LOS ANGELES — Father Jim Sichko, a pastor at St. Mark Catholic Church in Richmond, Ky., travels and preaches at parish missions in many different states. But this year he is one of Pope Francis’ designated “missionaries of mercy” — and that information has already made a big impact on his mission circuit.
Father Sichko told the Register at his last parish mission, where he gave a weekend retreat preaching and hearing confessions, the church was filled to its maximum capacity of 300 persons “every night.”
“There was an elderly gentlemen that was brought back into full communion with the Church; and a second was an infant whose parents did not want their child baptized, but they decided from the mission to seek baptism for the child,” he said.
In this jubilee year, the priest said he believes the missionaries of mercy will “see some powerful conversions and some amazing people coming back to the Church.”
“There are amazing opportunities of grace and Christ’s mercy that are afforded at every time and every moment, and with the highlight of this holy year, I think those will be much more prominent and much more visible,” Father Sichko said. “In turn, it can be an amazing form of evangelization.”
Right now, the priests selected by Pope Francis as missionaries of mercy have received their letters notifying them of the designation. Pope Francis will formally commission them and give them their mandate on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 10). But beyond the papal bull Misericordiae Vultus and their own letters, there is little concrete direction at this moment from the Holy Father as to how he envisions them fulfilling their mandate.
Still, these priests have already been making plans for carrying out their mission for Lent and the jubilee year ahead of Pope Francis revealing more of his mind to them in personal meetings on Feb. 9.
“I’m going to integrate it into my parish missions,” said Dominican Father Brian Mullady, who will be visiting parishes and missions across the country, from Alaska to Virginia.
“The parish missions are basically a whole week long, and during Lent, I use them to encourage the faithful to go to confession, so this fits in perfectly with that,” he said.
What’s a Missionary to Do?
When Pope Francis announced the Jubilee of Mercy with Misericordiae Vultus back in April, he announced that he intended to send out “missionaries of mercy,” priests with a reputation from preaching and hearing confessions, who would be “rich with responsibility for overcoming obstacles and taking up the new life of baptism again.” Making this mandate of mercy even clearer, the Holy Father said these priests appointed by him would be delegated the power to forgive even the worst of sins that only the Pope has the authority to pardon.
“They will be, above all, living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon,” Pope Francis said.
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization announced on its Year of Mercy website that the selection for candidates is now closed due to the “overwhelming” response. More than 800 priests offered to serve as missionaries of mercy.
Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., told the Register that more than 60 missionaries of mercy had been selected for the United States as of November. The bishop encouraged some of his priests to apply as soon as he found out about the Vatican’s application process.
The bishop said Vermont is true mission territory for the Church, adding that approximately four of 10 Vermonters identify as “atheist, agnostic or unchurched.”
Four priests known as “busy pastors” among the Vermont presbyterate, he said, were accepted as mercy missionaries. The diocese intends to get the word out by pushing the news heavily on digital and traditional media platforms.
But the bishop said the designation of these priests, personally appointed by Pope Francis, will help break through the spiritual barriers some people have constructed for themselves, “either due to bad advice or bad information,” that they are beyond God’s forgiveness.
“There are always people who, unfortunately, fall into that category of feeling they have done something that cannot be forgiven,” the bishop said. “I think the missionaries of mercy, as men who are empowered fully with the keys of forgiveness, will serve those people well and encourage them to know God’s forgiveness and love in our lives.”
Mercy in the Streets
In the San Gabriel region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the lay faithful, together with Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell — the auxiliary bishop in charge of that region — are working together to have groups of lay faithful, accompanied by archdiocesan priests, go into the streets of Los Angeles County and extend the message of Jesus Christ’s mercy to all they find.
Katie Tassinari, spokeswoman for the San Gabriel Year of Mercy team, told the Register the idea stems from Pope Francis’ call for missionaries of mercy and the Holy Father’s statement in Misericordiae Vultus: “Everyone, in fact, without exception, is called to embrace the call to mercy.”
She said that the idea to do what the Pope was calling for — spreading the invitation to all people — this way came from Auxiliary Bishop O’Connell, whose own priesthood was marked by taking the Gospel to the streets of south-central Los Angeles.
Close to 250 people are participating in the “Mercy in the Streets” initiative.
“The most important thing he wants us to do is to talk with people, welcome them home and pray for people — pray for them on the spot,” she said. The ideal is that when they go out to a neighborhood or a mall, they can invite people to speak with a priest, either to hear their confessions or just talk.
Tissanari said that the whole Year of Mercy is getting people to take notice and tune in where they did not before. She said the biggest request she has heard from parishes is to get priests in to talk about annulments and forgiveness for abortions, since those are two areas where many faithful are laboring under misinformation that they have been cast out of the Church and cannot receive God’s forgiveness.
The San Gabriel region does not have a designated missionary of mercy, but Tissanari said the team has been discussing how mercy missionaries could help them spread the Church’s message of mercy to the streets.
“Maybe they could teach us how to be better missionaries and how to be missionaries of mercy; to see ourselves as missionaries of mercy,” she said. While they may not have the faculties of a missionary, they can work together to make God’s mercy known.
“Let’s be missionaries of mercy also as laity. They could help us do that.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.