For Divine Mercy Sunday this year, Pope Francis summoned the Missionaries of Mercy to Rome, as he did in 2016 and 2018. (We were supposed to convene in 2020 as well, and then 2021, but the pandemic made it impossible to converge from the various countries of the world.)
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.” 1,142 priests from around the world were given a special mandate to be “above all, 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” through the practice of corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Our mandate was supposed to expire on the last day of the Jubilee, but in the document Pope Francis published for that occasion, he joyfully surprised us by writing he wanted “this extraordinary ministry … 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. 791 priests did. In the Latin parchment the Vatican sent to us individually, we were reappointed “usque ad revocationem” — until formally rescinded — and many of us Missionaries quietly prayed that Pope Francis, and his successors, would never choose to retract it.
When we met with Pope Francis the day after Divine Mercy Sunday, he told us that he wanted our mandate not only to continue but that he desired to make it a formal part of the renewed structure of the Church. He told us, emphasizing the word “I” in Italian three times as he spoke:
“As I wrote in the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, ‘Evangelization takes place in particular through the proclamation of divine mercy, by means of multiple approaches and expressions. The specific action of the Missionaries of Mercy contributes to this purpose in a special way’ (Art. 59 §2). I hope, therefore, that you may grow further, and for this reason I address to the bishops my desire that holy, merciful priests may be identified, ready to forgive, to become missionaries of Mercy to full effect.”
He wanted us to be part of the Church’s constitution and urged the bishops of the world to identify “holy, merciful” priests to become part of this Mission. He rejoiced that, since 2018, “every year the number of Missionaries of Mercy increases,” — there are now 1,240 Missionaries worldwide — because, he said, he had entrusted to us “the mission that is closest to my heart: being an effective tool of God’s mercy.” He urged us “with our ministry, to give voice to God and to show the face of His mercy” in a “silent, discreet simple way” as a “sacrament of His presence.”
Just how close our mission is to his heart he showed the previous day when his knee was causing him so much pain that he was unable to celebrate Mass with us for Divine Mercy Sunday. Nevertheless, even though he needed to slide slowly across St. Peter’s Basilica, wincing in severe pain on one occasion when, if not held up by his Master of Ceremonies he would have hit the marble floor, he still preached the homily.
He focused on how before Jesus gave the apostles on Easter Sunday evening the power to extend His peace throughout the world by the forgiveness of sins (Jn 20: 19-23), they first needed to receive the joy of that peace. This joy, he said, came from “turning their attention away from themselves and towards Jesus,” whose gaze “brimmed not with severity but with mercy” and made them “new persons, purified by a forgiveness that is utterly unmerited.”
He drew a lesson for us as Missionaries of Mercy, but also for all priest confessors: that we are called to become dispensers of the mercy that we ourselves have received. “Do not carry out your service as Missionaries of Mercy,” he appealed, “until you feel that forgiveness. … In the Church, forgiveness must be received … through the humble goodness of a merciful confessor … who pours out upon others the forgiveness that he himself first received. … You must be channels of that forgiveness through your own experience of being forgiven.”
The priest’s mission of mercy in the confessional, he suggested, is the way for us to love others as Christ has mercifully loved us first, and to do so brimming in the person of Christ with His own merciful love radiant in His risen wounds. The best way for us to be effective confessors and merciful missionaries, he implied, is for us to become ever better and more grateful penitents. The key, therefore, to bringing God’s mercy to a world hankering for it often without knowing it is for priests to drop to their knees regularly and fruitfully in confession, so that they may more efficaciously and perseveringly offer it to the world.
50 American Missionaries of Mercy were present in Rome for the meetings with the Holy Father as well as for the workshops and conferences, times of adoration and confession, and meals organized by the Vatican. We were, besides the Italians, by far the largest national delegation.
We took advantage of our time together to host an organizational meeting at the Casa Santa Maria, the U.S. bishops’ graduate house for student priests, to discuss ways we are able to collaborate more fruitfully, during which we heard the moving testimonies of the two Ukrainian Missionaries of Mercy who were able to be present in Rome about their mission of mercy at a time of war.
We also organized pilgrimages to the Basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Saint John in the Lateran and Saint Mary Major, to the Sistine Chapel, and to Saint Peter’s tomb, looking at all of them specifically through the prism of mercy, to deepen our understanding and strengthen our preaching.
We were able to ponder together, in great beauty, God’s mercy in the life of Saints Peter and Paul, in the preaching and writing of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, in the maternal intercession of the Blessed Mother and the saints buried in the Basilica built in her honor, and in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
At each of the Basilicas, we were able to study the message of mercy sculpted into the heavily indulgenced Jubilee Doors, which will open anew in 2025 as portals of hope. They, like the Missionaries of Mercy are summoned by the pope to be, are signs and channels of God’s mercy and of the Church’s maternal solicitude, for all those looking to leave worldliness behind and enter into new life with God.
For those priests who had previously studied or worked in Rome, these visits brought to the foreground a message that often is hidden in clear sight. For the priests who did not know Rome well, they provided the fitting context for what Rome most signifies in Church history: despite centuries of persecution, sacks, earthquakes, plagues, fires, scandals, scoundrels and more, Rome is a living testimony of the mercy of God — and the renewal it brings.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.