The Merciful Mission of the Missionaries of Mercy

“Year of Mercy” at the Divine Mercy Vigil in St. Peter's Square on April 2, 2016.
“Year of Mercy” at the Divine Mercy Vigil in St. Peter's Square on April 2, 2016. (photo: Photo Credit: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

We beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says, “In an acceptable time I have heard you; on a day of salvation I have helped you.” Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation! We avoid giving anyone offense, so that our ministry may not be blamed. On the contrary, in all that we do we strive to present ourselves as ministers of God. (2 Corinthians 6:1-4a)

When Pope Francis proclaimed the Year of Mercy Jubilee in November, 2015, he said, "May the balm of mercy reach everyone."

Little did I know what those simple words would mean to me.

The Jubilee Year, also called a Holy Year, is a tradition whose origin can be traced back to the Old Testament where the yovel year came at the end of a seven-year cycle. As part of the Jubilee Year, those who owned land were required to allow it lay fallow. The Book of Leviticus specifically requires the Faithful to free slaves and prisoners, to forgive debts and to reconcile with one's enemies. During the Jubilee Year, God's mercies would be particularly manifest. (Leviticus 25:8-13.) Since AD 1475, a Holy Year has been declared approximately every 25 years. Our most recent one was in AD 2000.

However, popes can sometimes declare an extraordinary Jubilee Year in addition to the usual schedule. Our current Year of Mercy is such. It is the 27th holy year in salvific history. Its proper name for this period of prayer is Iubilaeum Extraordinarium Misericordiae and is meant for the remission and universal pardon of sins. This particular Jubilee focuses on God's forgiveness and mercy.

The Year of Mercy began with Pope Francis' issuing his papal bull of indiction, Misericordiae Vultus (Latin: "The Face of Mercy") and opening the Great Door at the St. Peter's on December 8, 2015, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Vatican II. It will last until November 20, 2016, the Feast of Christ the King.

Special "Doors of Mercy" were opened at cathedrals and other major churches around the world. A plenary indulgence is granted to those who pass through it after fulfilling the usual conditions of reconciliation, reception of the Eucharist, several basic prayers and praying for the Pope's intentions.

When Pope Francis proclaimed the Holy Year, he explained that it was a way for the Church to "make more evident its mission to be a witness of mercy."

On behalf of the Pope, the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization asked the Church's bishops and religious superiors to recommended priests to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. Only 1000 were needed but the submission of names was truly overwhelming.

These 1000 Missionaries of Mercy have promised to make themselves available for the planet's 1.35 billion Catholics (approximately 19% of humanity) centered mostly in the Americas, Europe and Africa. However, they will literally travel the entire planet making themselves available as confessors, being especially attentive to the difficult situations of each penitent.

As soon as the Missionaries were commissioned in Rome, diocesan bishops within their particular country requested them to give missions or facilitate specific initiatives organized for the Jubilee, with a particular attention given to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The Missionaries of Mercy are specially selected priests, mostly those from religious communities as they ministries are more flexible than that of Diocesan priests, who have been granted "the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See," which are normally referred to as "delicts." This is a class of sin that is graver than merely mortal sins which includes such offenses as the abuse of the elderly, sexual abuse of children, sexual abuse of mentally disabled adults, abortion, possession of child pornography, insulting the Holy Spirit, profanation of the consecrated Eucharistic host, illicit ordination and abuse of the secrecy of the confessional. [1]

These men were chosen because they are "inspiring preachers of Mercy" and "heralds of the joy of forgiveness." According to the Vatican's announcement, they are meant to be a "living sign of the Father’s welcome to all those in search of his forgiveness."

Archbishop Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, the office organizing events for the Holy Year of Mercy, explained that these 1000 missionaries were chosen on the basis of their ability to preach well, especially on the theme of mercy, and be good confessors. This specifically means avoiding making the confessional, as Pope Francis says, like "a torture chamber"

The New York Archdiocese's first function celebrating the Year of Mercy Jubilee was held on Saturday, February 20, 2016 in the Bronx's mother church, St. Raymond Nonnatus. Msgr. John Graham, the pastor, admitted that he had very little notice as to today's liturgy but he was overjoyed that his church was selected.

"It's an honor that St. Raymond's was chosen for the Archdiocese's first official function for the Year of Mercy. It's a special privilege. We're not the biggest church in New York City or even the Bronx. Either way, we're pleased to be able to offer our hospitality to the Cardinal and to our congregants."

Parish Vicar, Fr. Raphael Boonsi, is from Ghana and had served the St. Raymond's parish for two years, mirrored the pastor's sentiments.

"I'm very happy to participate in today's liturgy. It's an honor. I find that too many people avoid reconciliation even though it's both a necessary and beautiful sacrament," Fr. Boonsi explained.

The day began with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a short speech by Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Immediately afterwards, the two Missionaries of Mercy, Frs. John Maria Devaney, OP and Arlen Harris, OFM Cap., and 12 other priests went to their respective confessional sites throughout the church and the 800+ congregants present. Confessions were heard in English, Spanish and Italian. Cardinal Dolan also heard confessions.

"I'm constantly amazed and reminded, especially during this Year of Mercy, of how God's Spirit moves people to seek forgiveness and the real need and desire of all people to deepen their relationship with Christ," said His Eminence after the liturgy.

After the two hours set aside for Reconciliation, the Rosary was recited and the Mass began with Cardinal Dolan as the main celebrant. A reception followed in the parish's school gymnasium.

Sr. Avelina Garcia, a Pax Christi Sister, was very thankful to be in attendance at Saturday's Reconciliation liturgy.

"I feel very blessed to be here especially when we consider how few Missionaries of Mercy there are and the great need there is throughout the world. There are only 1000 of them and we are blessed to have two of them here."

Daniel Frascella, Director of the New York Archdiocese's Office of Adult Faith Formation, is responsible for the Missionaries of Mercy liturgies. He was present for the liturgy at St. Raymond's.

"Pope Francis has asked us to focus in a particular way on mercy in this jubilee year, and the Mercy Saturdays are a way for Cardinal Dolan to lead all of us in the Archdiocese of New York as we reflect on God's mercy and rededicate ourselves to showing mercy toward others."

A minor logistical error turned out to be a great moment of grace for Dr. Frascella and, indeed, for all present.

"Something that illustrated [to me was] the desire of people to experience God's mercy in the sacrament of Confession was that we were fortunate to have so many priests join us at the event that we had more than we had confessional stations. However, those priests without a station simply sat in a pew and heard their confessions that way."                                                                                     

I waited my turn to confess to one of the Missionaries. And, truth be told, though I regularly reconcile myself, I felt the full weight of the sacrament with this specially selected and appointed priest. This man who heard my sins patiently, kindly and with a palatable sense of compassion, showed me a joyfulness which I hadn't truly experienced in many years.

I felt, and still feel, a lightness in my soul that I hadn't known since I was younger—it was both inexplicable and ineluctable. I was overwhelmed as one would be once the Hound of Heaven had finally overcome His prey.

After the sacrament was finished, I turned to the Missionary and thanked him from the bottom of my heart telling him he had done me a great service for which I will be eternally thankful.

The experience was, as Pope Francis predicted it would be, a merciful balm for my soul.

I returned to my seat and recalled the words to one of my favorite Biblical passages:

You shall seek the Lord, your God, and you shall indeed find Him when you search after Him with your whole heart and your whole soul. In your distress, when all these things shall have come upon you, you shall finally return to the Lord, your God, and heed His voice. Since the Lord, your God, is a merciful God, He will not abandon and destroy you, nor forget the covenant which under oath He made with your fathers. (Deuteronomy 4:29-31)

As I sat, I stared at the mesmerizingly human face of the Pantocrator/Christ in Judgment depicted on the inner surface of cupola high above the apse of the church and realized I was shaking.

I still tremble with gratitude and relief even now.

[1] Donadio, Rachel. "Vatican Revises Abuse Process, but Causes Stir." Associated Press. July 15, 2010.

Rohingya Muslim refugees gather during the Eid al-Fitr holiday inside their temporary settlement on May 14, 2021 in New Delhi, India. A lockdown is in effect as COVID-19 cases have surged in India, causing a shortage of oxygen supplies across the country.

India Needs Our Help

EDITORIAL: How can we, who are called by Jesus to love our neighbors, extend a helping hand to India and other developing world nations whose pandemic plight remains dire?