As you have no doubt seen in the paper, a major initiative of Lent this year is the missionaries of mercy, commissioned by the Holy Father to be “a living sign of the Father’s welcome to all those in search of his forgiveness” to Catholics around the world this year. The evening before their commissioning, Pope Francis met with these men — numbering more than 1,000 — to give them a kind of “pep talk” as they begin their work.
Pope Francis tasked them with three things as they begin their work of hearing confessions and spreading Christ’s mercy to the world: First, he said, the men are “called to express the maternal nature of the Church.”
“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,” he said.
Second, Pope Francis said the priests must be able to “look into the desire of the heart of the penitent.”
“The heart turns to God acknowledging the evil which has been done, but with the hope of obtaining pardon,” the Holy Father said. “This desire is reinforced when the person decides in his heart to change his life and does not want to sin again. It is the moment when we trust the mercy of God, and you have complete confidence you will be understood, forgiven and supported by him.”
Finally, Pope Francis encouraged the priests to be sensitive to the penitent’s natural sense of shame when in the confessional, calling for “an attitude of respect and encouragement” rather than judgment.
“Do not forget: In front of us there is no sin, just the repentant sinner, a persona who feels the desire to be accepted and forgiven,” he said.
Each of these three points is applicable to our own lives as we enter more deeply into the season of Lent during this Year of Mercy. In many ways, Pope Francis is calling each of us, as individual Catholics, to be missionaries of mercy in our own communities. The task of most of us, of course, is not to hear confessions or even necessarily to proclaim Christ’s mercy in a public way to the world, but instead to be attentive to those moments when we can live out Christ’s call to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). Like the “official” missionaries of mercy, we, too, can find avenues to better nurture our loved ones and nourish them in the Faith. We, too, can seek out moments when we truly try to understand the heart of the person who is speaking to us. We, too, can be sensitive to a person’s sense of shame — perhaps after an argument when being offered an apology — and see instead only the dignity of the person before us, not their actions. If we train ourselves to be missionaries of mercy in the small moments, perhaps we’ll be better at living it out in the big ones.