726 of these Missionaries were able to come to Rome to be with him on Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday as he spoke to them about the mission he was entrusting to them and gave them their mandate. I was humbled to be one of them.
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics across the world heard St. Paul describe himself and his fellow apostles as "ambassadors of Christ, God as it were appealing through us, imploring you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:19-20).
Since the Upper Room, when Jesus told the apostles, "Just as the Father sent me" as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, "so I send you," breathed God the Holy Spirit on them and instructed them, "Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven and those whose sins you retain are retained," the apostles, their successors the bishops, and the bishops' priestly collaborators have all been "ambassadors of Christ," sent out to preach and forgive sins in God's name and with God's power and thereby bring about reconciliation between God and man.
Every bishop and priest is, in some way, an emissary of expiation.
But on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis did something exceptional, commissioning 1,142 of the nearly 400,000 priests across the world, including 125 Americans, as "Missionaries of Mercy" for the remainder of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. 726 of these Missionaries were able to come to Rome to be with him on Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday as he spoke to them about the mission he was entrusting to them and gave them their mandate. I was humbled to be one of them.
Pope Francis has specified three essential tasks for the Missionaries of Mercy.
First, they are to be "above all, persuasive preachers of mercy," as he wrote in Misericordiae Vultus ("The Face of Mercy"), his Bull of Indiction for the Holy Year last April. He wants them to be "heralds of joy and forgiveness" who remind everyone in the Church that God desires mercy and "rejoices more for one repentant sinner." He wants them to summon people to trust in God's mercy, recognize their need for it, and come to receive it. Pope Francis in particular expressed hope that they would be asked to preach Jubilee year missions in which they could help people "confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help" (Heb 4:16).
Second, the Missionaries of Mercy are to dedicate themselves in a particular way to hearing confessions. Pope Francis has given them the "authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer." Under Church law there are some grave sins that carry with them penalties -- automatic excommunication, interdict or suspension -- that can only be lifted, in some cases, by the bishop of the region or, in others, by the Pope himself.
For the duration of the Holy Year, the Pope gave the Missionaries of Mercy the faculties to absolve the censures due to four particularly grave sins: desecrating the Eucharist, physically attacking the Pope, a priest's absolving a partner in a sexual sin or directly breaking the sacramental seal of confession.
Normally, when one confesses these rare sins, the confessor needs to ask permission from the Holy See to lift the penalty so as to be able to absolve the sin. By giving these faculties to the Missionaries, Pope Francis is essentially facilitating the path for people to have these sins forgiven, so that during the Jubilee of Mercy those carrying around the weight of the sins and ecclesiastical penalties could be forgiven and restored to grace.
Third, Pope Francis wants the missionaries to be, as he said last Tuesday, "signs and instruments of God's forgiveness" or as he wrote in Misericordiae Vultus, "living signs of the Father's readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon" and of "the Church's maternal solicitude for the People of God." Signs are more than symbols, which have an arbitrary relation to what they represent. Signs, rather, have an intrinsic relation to what they indicate and the Missionaries of Mercy are supposed to be living examples of God's mercy as well as God's means, his "channels," to bring about that forgiveness.
"To be a Missionary of Mercy," Pope Francis emphasized on Mardi Gras, "is a responsibility that ... requires that you be personal witnesses of God's closeness, of his way of loving ... and his way of forgiving, which is in fact mercy." And Pope Francis poignantly added that if a priest cannot be "merciful like the Father" in the Confessional, he shouldn't hear confessions: "If you don't feel you are a father, do not go to the confessional," Pope Francis said. "It is better if you do something else. Because so much harm can be done ... to a soul if it is not received with the heart of a father, with the heart of Mother Church."
What is the "mission territory" to which Pope Francis is sending these preachers, channels and living signs of mercy? "Whatever place on earth you find yourself" was the answer provided on the beautiful official parchment given to each Missionary.
That vast expanse also includes typical parishes, since surveys show that three quarters of Catholics in the U.S., including 38 percent of weekly Mass-going Catholics, do not go to confession even the canonically minimal frequency of once a year. Some Catholics behave as if they believe that the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is an optional and unimportant part of Catholic faith and life. That's something Pope Francis, by the Jubilee of Mercy and his sending out of these Missionaries, is aiming to remedy.
And in parishes there may even be a special outreach to parish priests, since while every priest is called by ordination to be an "ambassador of Christ" with regard to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, some do not give much emphasis to this key ministry, dedicating to it just a small window on Saturday afternoons. The fact that two of the four reserved penalties that Missionaries have been given the faculties to lift concern sins of priest confessors seems to indicate a special papal solicitude for Missionaries to be instruments of reconciliation for their priest brothers.
At the end of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, Pope Francis asked the Church to join him in praying to God the Father of Mercies to bless the work of the Missionaries of Mercy. These are words Pope Francis would ask all Catholics to entreat with him:
"Protect, Lord, these your servants whom we are sending out as messengers of mercy, salvation and peace. Guide their steps with your right hand and strengthen them with the power of your grace. ... May the voice of Christ resound in their words and the heart of Christ in their deeds so that all those who hear them be attracted to obey the Gospel. Pour into their hearts your Holy Spirit so that, having made themselves everything to everyone, they may lead to you, Father, a multitude of children to praise you in your Church without end. Amen."
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.