Hundreds of Pope Francis' missionaries of mercy are gathering at the Vatican in coming days for formation and fellowship, for the first time since their mandate was extended at the end of the Jubilee of Mercy.
It has been two years since the missionaries were first commissioned on Ash Wednesday 2016 during the jubilee, and it has been nearly 18 months since the pope extended their mandate at the close of the holy year, allowing them to continue hearing confessions freely in every diocese throughout the world and lifting censures - ecclesiastical penalties - that normally require the permission of the pope.
The missionaries, who number over 1,000 and come from all over the world, have spent much of the past two years working to spread the message of God's mercy and forgiveness through their daily activities and ministries, including talks, retreats, and social communications. An emphasis on confession is central to their work, which many of the missionaries say is greatly needed.
“I'm very grateful the Holy Father has continued our mandate, because not only is it needed, but also, it's a joy to do this work as a priest,” Fr. John Mary Devaney told CNA April 6.
He said the missionaries originally got a letter informing them that their mandate would end with the close of the Jubilee of Mercy, and were surprised and delighted when Pope Francis published a letter the day after the end of the holy year saying their ministry would be extended.
Devaney said the majority of American Catholics he meets do not go to confession regularly. But when he has heard the confession of someone who has been away for decades, the experience was largely life-changing for the penitent.
The encounter with God’s mercy in a new or forgotten way is so powerful, he said, that “I have no doubt that they will continue to go to confession again.”
Devaney, who comes from the Archdiocese of New York, hosts the weekly program Word to Life on SiriusXM radio, and is just one of some 600 Missionaries of Mercy expected to come to Rome for an April 8-11 meeting focused on spiritual formation and building fellowship.
During the meeting, missionaries will have the opportunity to go to confession themselves and listen to talks dedicated to themes relevant to their ministry, such as confession as a sacrament of mercy, and sin and mercy in the life of the priest.
The event will open April 8 with Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday, which the missionaries will concelebrate alongside Pope Francis.
They will hear talks from Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Archbishop Rino Fisichella, prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization; and Archbishop Jose Octavio Ruiz Arenas, secretary for the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.
The missionaries’ work was placed under the jurisdiction of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, from which they receive instruction and ongoing communication throughout the year.
According to Msgr. Graham Bell, an official working with the council, the main idea for the event is that it offer “ongoing formation” to the missionaries.
“It's about the exercise of your ministry as Missionaries of Mercy. So it's understanding how mercy works, how it functions in the life of persons, and in the life of priests,” he told CNA April 5, adding that the scope is simply “to make them better at what they do.”
What the council wants from the missionaries, he said, is to place a strong emphasis on the sacrament of confession, and to promote their ministry through specific activities, particularly during major liturgical seasons such as Lent and Advent.
And with no clear end in sight to the missionary mandate, Bell said the idea is to continue having meetings on a regular basis to offer formation and time to share stories. So far, from the feedback they council has received, the missionaries “have a very, very strong impact,” he said.
For Fr. Roger Landry, a missionary of mercy who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations in New York, the ministry of mercy is always needed in the Church, but is especially crucial in the modern global context.
Landry told CNA that both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have emphasized that “we are living in a 'kairos of mercy,' a time in which God’s loving forgiveness is especially crucial.”
This, he said, is because “we’re living at a time in which unexpiated guilt is wreaking so much havoc.”
“After two World Wars and the Cold War, the Holocaust, the genocides in Armenia, Ukraine, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, after so many atrocities from tyrannical governments, after the waterfalls of blood flowing from more than two billion abortions worldwide, after the sins that have destroyed so many families, after so much physical and sexual abuse, after lengthy crime logs in newspapers every day, after the scourge of terrorism, after so much hurt and pain, the terrible weight of collective guilt crushes not only individuals but burdens structures and whole societies.”
The modern world, he said, is like “one big Lady Macbeth, compulsively washing our hands to remove the blood from them, [but] there is no earthly detergent powerful enough to take the blemishes away.”
People can speak to psychiatrists and psychologists, but their words and advise can only help deal with guilt, “not eliminate it,” Landry said.
“We can confess ourselves to bartenders, but they can only dispense Absolut vodka, not absolution, and inebriation never brings expiation.”
There is also the attempt by many to try to escape reality through “distractions and addictions” such as sports, drugs, entertainment, food, power, materialism, lust and many other things, Landry said, but stressed that none of this “can adequately anesthetize the pain in our soul from the suffering we’ve caused or witnessed.”
“We’re yearning for a second, third or seventy-times-seventh chance. We’re pining for forgiveness, reconciliation, and a restoration of goodness. We’re hankering for a giant reset button for ourselves and for the world.”
Landry said his mandate has also impacted his work at the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the U.N., much of which is already dedicated to the works of mercy, such as caring for the poor, defending the vulnerable, feeding the hungry and seeking to provide education and care for those suffering due to war.
In addition to his work at the U.N., Landry said bishops have also sought him out and asked him to come to their dioceses to speak and hear confessions, and “thanks be to God, there has been a lot of fruit.”
Similarly, Fr. John Paul Zeller, a friar with the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word and a missionary of mercy from Birmingham, Ala., said he has had the opportunity to travel around the United States and offer talks and retreats centered on mercy, and has seen enormous fruits.
One of the things he has emphasized the most is reaching out to people who have been far from the Church or who have had a bad experience in confession, and have either left the Church or refused to go back to the sacrament as a result.
In comments to CNA, Zeller noted that when they were first commissioned in 2016, Pope Francis told them that people had been “lambasted” at times by priests in the confessional, and that this experience did a lot of damage.
“I really took that to heart,” Zeller said, explaining that there have been multiple times he has stood in front of a group and apologized for these bad experiences, saying “if anybody here has had a bad experience in the confessional, from childhood until now, I beg you in the name of Jesus Christ, I beg you in Jesus' name and as a representative of our Holy Father, I beg your forgiveness.”
The results have been profound, not only in people returning to the sacrament, but in those seeking him out for spiritual advice or guidance.
“So many people are starving for a shepherd, starving for someone to show them love, show them that they care and to listen to them,” he said, adding that “it's been such a privilege” to be put into situations where he is able to offer help to a person in real need.
However, Zeller stressed that mercy doesn't mean a lack of justice. These two virtues, he said, are not opposed, but rather, according to the logic of God, they are “the same thing.”
“Sometimes we come across as thinking mercy is just being all sappy and not firm with people and not clear with people…. [But] when we're exercising mercy, we need to exercise the virtue of justice too.”
In addition to talks and retreats, Fr. Devaney has turned to media to get the message of mercy out.
Though his primary ministry is carried out at a hospital, Devaney said that he and another missionary of mercy — Nigerian Fr. Augustine Dada, who is currently one of the missionaries serving in New York — decided to offer a special program dedicated to mercy on his SiriusXM radio show for Lent.
Looking forward, the missionaries voiced hope that a full list of all the Missionaries of Mercy would be made public so that people would know where to find one if needed.
They also expressed a desire for additional instruction on the technicalities of how to lift censures - penalties for certain delicts, or canonical “crimes” - which they have been given the faculty to remit. Some of the missionaries said they are uncertain about the process for remitting those penalties.
The missionaries were initially given the faculty to remit penalties for four of these types of delicts: 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 shalt not commit adultery”) and, in limited circumstances, a direct violation against the sacramental seal by a confessor.
In an April 2017 letter confirming their mandate, the pope added an additional delict to the list, allowing the missionaries to remit the penalty associated with recording what a priest or penitent says in confession, and the diffusion of that the recording online.
Fr. Zeller told CNA that while he was in Rome for the commissioning of the missionaries during the jubilee, he was able to visit the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican court dealing with some cases of excommunication and with matters addressed in confession, where he got an explainer from an official on how remitting censures works.
For more than an hour, “I asked questions upon questions, and we went over the different censures,” Zeller said, adding that “to see how the Church deals with them and how much the Church deals with the salvation of souls was astounding to me.”
“I came away from there with a renewed sense of how much the Church cares about the soul,” he said, explaining that when the Penitentiary gets an inquiry from a priest involving a delict that incurred automatic excommunication, a response, remission, and penance are sent back within 24 hours.
“Nothing happens that quickly in the Church, nothing,” he continued. “Everything, on every level of the Church, everything takes so long...but when it comes to sin, when it comes to that restoring people to grace...I am just so grateful for...how much the Church cares about the salvation of souls.”
A response is “sent out in less than 24 hours. That's saying a lot,” Zeller emphasized. He said he has had the opportunity to explain the process to other priests, and hopes that in the future, better formation will be offered in seminaries for how to handle these delicts if they are confessed.
However, while remitting censures is a part of their mandate, the missionaries agreed that it is not the most important part.
Fr. Devaney told CNA that the circumstances that incur censures are rare, and that while they have been given the faculty to remit them, “the core and heart of what [Pope Francis] wants is for us to just go and renew Catholics, in particular, with God's mercy.”