On February 10, Pope Francis sent out 1,142 priests to serve as Missionaries of Mercy throughout Catholic parishes. The priests—who were selected from a pool of volunteers and episcopal recommendations—were given authority to forgive sins that usually need to be brought up to the Vatican during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Such sins include the desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, an attempt at the life of the pope, ordaining a bishop without proper clearing from the Vatican, and breaking of the seal of confession.
While it is unlikely that most Catholics are in a situation where a priest with the appropriate faculties for lifting apostolic censures is necessary, the Pontiff sees the Missionaries of Mercy as bringing forth the mercy and maternal love of the Church into the world. In addition to hearing confessions, the Missionaries of Mercy can be called by local bishops to preach on mercy and to participate in religious retreats.
After Ash Wednesday Mass—which served as the Missionaries official send off—Pope Francis met with 726 of the missionaries who had made the trip to Rome. During the meeting, he paused particularly on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and its importance. He stressed the image of the Church as Mother, stating, “The Church is a Mother because she always creates new children in faith; the Church is a Mother because she nourishes this faith; and the Church is a Mother because she offers the forgiveness of God, regenerating to a new life, the fruit of conversion.” The Holy Father asked the missionaries to keep the love and mercy of the Church close in their hearts when serving their duties.
Toward the end of his remarks, the Pontiff focused on one of the aspects of confession which is often not emphasized, but which carries a crucial importance, shame. “Do not forget: in front of us there is no sin, just the repentant sinner,” Pope Francis said, “A person who feels the desire to be accepted and forgiven… Therefore, we are not called to judge, with a sense of superiority, as if we were immune from sin; on the contrary, we are called to act as Shem and Japheth, the sons of Noah, who took a blanket and put it over their father and hid his shame.”
Of the 1,142 Missionaries of Mercy, 125 come from the United States. Of those, 14 percent are Dominican friars of the Province of St. Joseph. Also included among the missionaries are priests from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Egypt, and other impoverished countries, where Christians face persecution. For priests coming from poor countries, the Vatican was able to offer aid so that they too might be able to come to Rome for the commissioning, in cases where their parishes were unable to support such an expense.
Pope Francis also asked for the relics of two saints who are well known for their examples in mercy, St. Pio of Pietrelcina and St. Leopold Mandić. The two saints—both of whom were Capuchins—were famous for spending a great amount of their time hearing confessions and giving spiritual guidance. While St. Pio, the famed stygmatist and mystic, is quite famous among Catholics, St. Leopold is an equal representative of God’s mercy.
Despite being afflicted by physical maladies for a large part of his life, he devoted his life as an expression of God’s mercy. During World War II, when the friary where St. Leopold lived was bombed, his cell and confessional retained no harm. St. Leopold reportedly predicted this, saying, “The church and the friary will be hit by the bombs, but not this little cell. Here God exercised so much mercy for people, it must remain as a monument to God's goodness."
In addition to the Missionaries of Mercy, Pope Francis has granted priests of the Society of St. Pius X—who ordinarily lack the faculties to hear confessions except in cases where the penitent’s life is in danger—the ability to licitly forgive sins during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.