CINCINNATI – Pope Francis’s agents of mercy gathered in Kentucky to pray, swap stories, and plan for the future of a missionary group that never expected to exist past 2016, let alone into 2020.
“We try to be a compass for people, to point them in the direction of God’s compassion and mercy,” explained Father Jim Sichko, one of eleven hundred Missionaries of Mercy tasked by Francis with sharing Christ’s message of mercy around the globe.
Sichko welcomed thirty-three of his fellow missionaries and a representative from the Pontifical Council of the New Evangelization in Rome to his home diocese in Lexington, Kentucky for the First National Gathering of the Missionaries of Mercy USA and Canada this past week.
The Missionaries of Mercy were originally called and commissioned by Francis on February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday – during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.
According to Monsignor George Majoros, organizer and coordinator of the Lexington gathering, these missionaries are meant “to be the visible face of mercy all over the world.”
Thanks to their special papal mandate, Missionaries of Mercy can hear confessions anywhere in the world and have the authority to pardon sins that normally require special permission from the Holy See, such as the profaning of the Eucharist or even the use of physical force against the pope.
The initial plan was for these men to return to their homes to “incarnate this vision and desire of Pope Francis for a merciful Church” until the end of that Jubilee Year, Majoros told Crux. Much to their surprise, in an apostolic letter marking the conclusion of the Jubilee, Francis praised the many fruits of their efforts and extended their mandate indefinitely.
Stories of creative ways of bringing the Sacrament of Reconciliation to people were in abundance at the Lexington gathering. For example, one missionary who serves as a college chaplain at a major state university in the Midwest, reported that he drives a golf cart around campus hearing confessions, a fitting image for Francis’s desired “Church on the move.”
Because the vast majority of the Missionaries of Mercy serve full-time as pastors, chaplains, and in other ministry roles, their particular witness comes in many forms. Unifying their ministry, however, is a particular focus on showing mercy to those on the peripheries.
Father Roger Landry, a Missionary of Mercy from the Diocese of Fall River, told Crux that he and his fellow missionaries try to bring mercy “for the immigrants, for the poor, for those who are alienated for one reason or another from the Church, especially those who have been victimized by the Church.”
What does that look like in practice? Landry highlighted the work of fellow missionary Father Roberto Mena, who presented at the Lexington gathering about what spreading mercy has looked like as the pastor of a Mississippi parish that lost nearly half of its parishioners in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.
For at least one Missionary of Mercy, crafting creative ways to bring Christ’s message of mercy has become a full-time ministry. After Francis extended the mandate for the missionaries in 2016, Sichko received the green light from his bishop to make mercy his sole focus.
“I go around doing parish missions, giving priest retreats, and doing very crazy random acts of kindnesses,” Sichko said.
Those random acts have included buying pizzas for furloughed TSA workers, paying more than $20,000 in utility bills and rent for miners in Eastern Kentucky who had been laid off and denied pay for completed work, and coordinating with a bicycle company to surprise 100 second-graders with new bicycles for Christmas.
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington – Sichko’s bishop – told Crux, “The creation of the Missionaries of Mercy during the Year of Mercy, and extended indefinitely, has been one of the tangible gestures of Pope Francis designed to increase opportunities for people to encounter the mercy of Christ in a very personal way.”
“The Missionaries of Mercy have creatively reached out to the alienated, the unevangelized, as well as those faithful Catholics who simply need to be reminded of the availability of God’s mercy,” Stowe added.
Last week’s gathering in Stowe’s Lexington diocese afforded the Missionaries of Mercy an opportunity to make some plans for a future made possible by their extended mandate. Next year, the missionaries will join their global colleagues in Rome for a biennial summit. The following year, they plan to reconvene in North America for a second edition of their National Gathering.
The missionaries also took practical steps to better coordinate their efforts going forward and soon will introduce a new website “so that if bishops or other members of the faithful want to put us to work, they will know how to find us easily,” said Landry.
While it remains to be seen what the “indefinite” mandate will mean for these men of mercy, Landry hopes that it will never be revoked, telling Crux, “I think that the Church needs what we’re trying to do together here with the Holy Father, to make Jesus’ mercy as accessible as possible.”
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