Father Roger J. Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.
In the Gospel, Jesus would regularly huddle the apostles after they had returned from the journeys on which he had sent them out to preach and heal, so that they might report all they had done and taught (Mark 6:30-31).
Something similar happened in Lexington, Kentucky, Jan. 21-23, as the Missionaries of Mercy from the U.S. and Canada convened, in a spirit of prayer and fraternity, to speak with the Lord and each other about the fruits and challenges of four years of work witnessing to the Gospel of mercy.
Missionaries of Mercy, you may recall, were appointed by Pope Francis during the Jubilee of Mercy in 2016 as a conspicuous sign of “God the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon” and the “Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God.” More than 1,100 priests from around the world were given a special mandate to be “persuasive preachers of mercy,” to commit themselves in a particular way to hearing confessions with the “authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See,” and to serve as “personal witnesses of God’s closeness and of his way of loving.”
Their mandate was supposed to expire on the last day of the Jubilee, but in the document Pope Francis published for that occasion, he wrote:
“This extraordinary ministry … I wish it to continue until further notice as a concrete sign that the grace of the Jubilee remains alive and effective the world over.”
He invited Missionaries, with the approval of their bishops or religious superiors, to recommit themselves to the task. His invitation was taken up by 791 priests, of whom 127 are Americans. I’m humbled to be among them.
While the Missionaries have met twice in Rome with our colleagues from around the world, several U.S. Missionaries, spearheaded by Msgr. George Majoros of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, thought it would be worthwhile for those of us in the U.S. and Canada to convene to build fraternity and collaboration, pray together, examine the situations we face in common, explore best practices in responding to them and rededicate ourselves to the blessed responsibility we have been given.
We met in Lexington thanks to the hospitality of Bishop John Stowe and the extraordinary leadership of Missionary Father Jim Sichko of the Lexington Diocese, who took it upon himself to solicit donations so that all Missionaries needed to do was to get to Lexington. He took care of everything else — including accommodations at the Lexington Griffin Gate Marriott, conference facilities, a charter bus and meals. He even arranged for Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to appoint us all as Commonwealth of Kentucky Ambassadors.
Paulist Father John Hurley emceed a great series of talks for the 31 of us who were ultimately able to make it. Father Hurley, Bishop Gerald Vincke of Salina, Kansas, and Paulist Father Bruce Nieli gave powerful meditations on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment, respectively.
There were two talks each on how to witness to the Gospel of Mercy in word, in the sacraments, and in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It was inspiring to see the creativity and tenacity of brother Missionaries as they lived out different aspects of our mandate.
We pondered various of the challenges of preaching mercy today at a time when many Catholics are out of practice and misunderstand the Sacrament of Penance.
Father Mark Zacker of Colorado Springs witnessed to how he studied Spanish to be able extend God’s mercy to the many Spanish-speaking members of his flock.
Dominican Father Patrick Baikauskas, the Catholic chaplain at Purdue University, explained the genesis of his “Confession Cart,” in which in his Dominican habit he rides around campus in a golf cart as a mobile confessional, bringing the sacrament to the people. He described that that outreach has led to many coming to Church for confession, Mass, prayer and more.
Society of St. Augustine Father Joseph Arsenault, serving in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, described how he has sought to bring God’s mercy in a particular way to brother priests.
Dominican Father David Caron, the director of the Office of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, introduced us to what the archdiocese has done — through printed materials, radio ads, billboards and more — to show that God’s mercy is endless and help people come to receive it.
Trinity Missionary Father Roberto Mena documented for us how he has sought to care — and lead his people to care — for our immigrant brothers and sisters whose lives were turned upside down after ICE raided the food processing plants where they worked.
Father Rafael Capo also gave us a great presentation on the recent Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic Ministry in the U.S. and indicated ways that we, not just as Missionaries of Mercy, but as priests serving in North America, might more effectively serve, and unleash the gifts, of Latino Catholics.
We were accompanied throughout the three days by Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, who gave a beautiful meditation on the role of Missionaries of Mercy and the sacrament of reconciliation in the New Evangelization and in particular in bringing young people to experience God’s merciful love. He brought a special word from Pope Francis with whom he had met a few days prior. He also preached a moving homily on our last day on mercy in the life of St. Marianne Cope, a German-born U.S. saint who worked alongside St. Damien of Molokai in caring for the lepers of Hawaii.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was for us a particularly poignant icon of God’s mercy. He is the former bishop of Limburg, Germany, who resigned in 2014 after people were appalled at the sums used to renovate the diocese’s chancery and bishop’s residence. Since he was only 55 at the time, Pope Francis asked him to come to Rome and appointed him to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to assist the Church in the area of catechesis.
Some commentators objected to the appointment. Our time with him, however, witnessing his many spiritual and intellectual gifts, and listening to his anecdotes about mercy in small groups and over meals, helped us anew to behold the restorative beauty of God’s mercy and the fruits of a second chance humbly received.
As the gathering was coming to a close, we discussed various ways to try to make our mission more effective.
We decided to keep our meetings going every other year, in the alternative years of the biennial international gatherings in Rome. We set up a Google group to allow much better coordination and enable collaborative, rather than individual, efforts.
We noted that there are some in the Church who remain unaware of our mission and many more, even though they’re aware of Missionaries of Mercy, don’t really know how to find one.
While the Vatican has sent bishops books with all of our names and contact information, priests and faithful who are looking for us don’t often know how to find us for confession, or for preaching missions, or for other reasons. So we created an email address where people can find us — email@example.com — and have their questions or invitations directed to the most appropriate missionaries.
And we are building a website to make it much easier for people to find out about us, contact us in our various dioceses, and profit from some of the resources individual missionaries and others have created to help people receive and live the Gospel of mercy more efficaciously. We hope to have the website up and running by Lent.
Pope Francis, echoing Pope St. John Paul II, has stressed that we are living in a kairos, or special time, of mercy. The Missionaries of Mercy are one of Pope Francis’ responses to that kairos and those of us in the U.S. and Canada are eager to be part of that mobilization, so that, as Pope Francis prayed, the grace of the Jubilee of Mercy will remain alive and effective from sea to shining sea.