‘Missionaries of Mercy’ Reflect on the Jubilee
Thoughts from priests on the special year.
Editor's Note: These columns are from our Nov. 27 issue, which went to press ahead of the papal letter extending Year of Mercy faculties.
Protecting the Confessional
Though it was done in an informal, loosely canonical way, as a “missionary of mercy,” I had the authority to lift the penalty of excommunication for four canonical crimes normally “reserved” to the Holy See: desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, physical assault on the Holy Father, forgiveness by a priest of an accomplice in a sin against chastity, and the violation by a priest of the seal of the confessional.
There were two criticisms of this aspect of the Jubilee of Mercy. The first was that these sins were so rare as to make the granting of a special authority merely symbolic. That criticism missed the point — Pope Francis intended it precisely as a symbol of the expansiveness of the Church’s mercy. A second criticism was that reserved sins are mostly committed by priests, so the gesture was really a clerical one. That, too, was true, but it turned out to be a feature, not a bug. Priests need mercy, too.
I preached a lot on mercy during the jubilee year in a great many places, from Rome to Reykjavik, in heaven’s capital city (Jerusalem) and in earth’s too (New York). As for confessions, there was no notable difference from other evenings of recollection or parish missions I had preached in previous years, either in quantity or quality.
There was, though, a significant difference in the confessions I heard of priests in the jubilee year. There were quite a few who, knowing I was a “missionary of mercy,” wanted to speak to me about the “reserved” sins of the confessional. Now, as it turned out, with only one possible exception — and that, only possibly, not certainly — none of the priests were actually guilty of granting absolution to an accomplice or violating the seal. What made an impression upon me was that these good priests had carried with them, sometimes for years, anxieties that they had inadvertently violated the seal. In all cases, they had raised it with confessors previously and had been told that they had not, in fact, violated the seal.
Nevertheless, they wanted to bring the matter before a priest who, as a “missionary of mercy,” could definitively lay the matter to rest. What was concerning these priests? That they had been indiscreet in conversation, perhaps allowing for the possibility of someone knowing who had been to confession. In no case did a priest ever speak about the content of a confession to anyone. In some cases, a priest spoke to the penitent himself outside of the confessional.
I was moved by how seriously these priests took the sanctity of the confessional, that even the slightest possibility of a violation would weigh heavily on them.
Pope Francis once warned against penitents using the confessional like a “dry cleaner” — dropping off the dirty clothes and picking them up later as a mere chore, without any interior engagement or conversion. It’s the same for the confessor. Hearing confessions is not meant to be a mere chore, dispensing absolution in a routine manner. However, after many confessions over many years, it might become that. The witness of the priests I absolved was that their encounters in the confessional weighed upon them; it was no mere routine matter.
From time to time in Church history, there are dramatic stories about the seal of the confessional. Alfred Hitchcock made an entire movie about it, I Confess. The Jubilee of Mercy taught me that the drama of protecting the confessional is also a hidden, daily work of priests, all ordained to be missionaries of the Lord’s mercy.
is the editor in chief of
Supporting the Faithful in Mercy
As one of the “missionaries of mercy” appointed for the Year of Mercy by Pope Francis, I was encouraged by the Pope to help people return to the practice of their religion by not emphasizing what led to their original desertion of the sacraments to begin with, but the constant invitation of the Lord. This was to be primarily accomplished through preaching and hearing confessions.
Obviously, due to the very unusual and specific nature of the sins involved, I have had very little occasion to exercise the special faculties. Still, there have been instances where I have been able to give people relief and consolation by absolving them from situations that caused them some anxiety regarding some of these sins.As one of the “missionaries of mercy” appointed for the Year of Mercy by Pope Francis, I was encouraged by the Pope to help people return to the practice of their religion by not emphasizing what led to their original desertion of the sacraments to begin with, but the constant invitation of the Lord. This was to be primarily accomplished through preaching and hearing confessions.
On the preaching front, there has been much more evident success. The opportunities to preach mercy have been numerous and deep this year. What was especially delightful was the opportunity to use an official Church-sanctioned period of time to instruct the laity in the doctrine of grace, the result of Divine Mercy. A further wonderful experience was the application of this to the universal call to holiness and the special encouragement to return to confession and Communion if one had been away.
Every parish mission always has a few people who confess after many years, sometimes 30 or 40. This is a special privilege for the confessor. The Year of Mercy was a special time to offer this opportunity across the board.
I did give a few special conferences and retreats on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to various groups. The corporal works of mercy are easy to explain; practicing them might be more of a challenge. But my special joy was to explain each of the spiritual works of mercy in detail. Things like instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, counseling the doubtful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving enemies and praying for the dead are often not connected with the idea of mercy. Many people would think that one should change the truth out of mercy. Others would not identify admonishing the sinner with mercy.
St. Augustine is clear, though, that if my brother had a disease he wanted to hide for fear of the pain of the medicine or surgery, it would not be mercy to cooperate in the deceit. In the same way, Christ tells us we have an obligation to correct our brother and sister, provided that we can hope our correction will not make the evil worse — and we have some responsibility for this. Laypeople may have responsibility for those either in their families or jobs, but priests have a general responsibility to do this for the faithful. Christ, after all, was affirming Peter when he called him “Satan,” because he knew Peter could take it and it would provide a needed corrective to Peter, as the first pope, concerning the Passion.
This Year of Mercy, then, has been a particularly blessed time for the missionaries of mercy to encourage all of the faithful to return to the practice of their religion and to identify those areas where they need work and those areas where they are strong.
The affirmation required of us was both emotional and intellectual, in supporting the person, but also in telling the truth. I am glad to have been commissioned to do both.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at
Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
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