ROME — Pope Francis has tapped more than 1,000 Catholic priests to become “Missionaries of Mercy” during his jubilee year, and on Tuesday he told more than 700 of them that when listening to other people’s sins, they must respect and encourage those who, “with shame,” go to confession.
“Let’s not forget: it’s not sin in front of us, but the repentant sinner,” Francis told 726 missionaries of mercy who were in Rome to participate in a two-day event. “A person who has the desire to be heard and forgiven, [and] who promises to stay close to the house of the Father.”
The pope spoke to the priests in the Sala Regia, within the Apostolic Palace and right next to the famed Sistine Chapel.
The Missionaries of Mercy, one of the novelties of Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy, volunteered or were nominated by their bishops or religious superiors. Throughout the year, they’ll be available for bishops to summon to their dioceses to preach about mercy and hear confessions.
The priests will have the authority to forgive sins reserved to the Vatican, such as an attempt against the life of the pope or a priest who violates the seal of the confessional.
“We can’t run the risk of a penitent not perceiving the maternal love of the Church that welcomes and loves him,” the pope said.
Above all, Francis asked the missionaries to remember that when they enter the confessional, “it’s Christ who welcomes, it’s Christ who forgives, it’s Christ who gives peace. We’re his ministers, and we first need to be forgiven by him.”
Before leaving Rome, the priests will concelebrate the Ash Wednesday Mass with the pope, marking the beginning of the Lenten season.
In all, 1,142 priests have been selected to be Missionaries of Mercy. They come from every continent, including countries such as China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Egypt, where Christians face persecution.
The Rev. Geno Sylva, the lone American working in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, said the Vatican office behind the jubilee provided financial help to the missionaries coming from some of the world’s poorest regions, so they, too, could be in Rome for Francis’ send-off.
“Whatever we can provide, when we can provide it for the missionaries of mercy, we’re doing it,” he said in a January interview. “It can’t just be missionaries of mercy coming from wealthy parishes and countries!”
According to Sylva, 125 missionaries are in the United States. Of that number, 14 percent are Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph, one of whom is the Rev. John Maria Devaney from New York.
The 39-year-old priest worked as a professional DJ from 1995 until 2008, when he joined the Dominicans, and was ordained a few months before he volunteered as a Missionary of Mercy.
Today, he works as a hospital chaplain and as an on-air host at the Catholic Channel of SiriusXM online radio in New York.
Devaney told Crux that he decided to apply as a Missionary of Mercy because he’s been moved by the work he does in the hospital, being at someone’s death bed several times a week to offer comfort or hear their confession.
“Mercy is one of God’s attributes,” Devaney said, saying that mercy is knowing that “no matter how much we wrong God and our neighbor, we can be reconciled.”
The Rev. Chuck Tobin from the diocese of Belton, in Kansas, is closer to the end of his ministry than the beginning. He’s been retired for a couple of years, yet his diocese has continued to assign him to different parishes where help is needed.
In 2015, he was asked to become a Missionary of Mercy, and he agreed, among other reasons because he’s not restricted to a full-time ministry.
“I am very happy to attempt the ministry and believe strongly in the Holy Father’s emphasis on mercy that has been central for me since my years in Bolivia,” Tobin told Crux on Friday.
Along with his ministry, he has served in several countries in Latin and Central America, one reason why he’s available for bishops from other dioceses who need missionaries of mercy who speak Spanish.
Tobin said that many times people use the sacrament of confession to talk about their sexuality, but he stops them to ask, “What about charity, and your relationship with other people? …. What do you want to ask a loving God’s grace to become more holy?”
“It’s very, very hard for a priest to be a judge as opposed to being a doctor, who asks, ‘Where does it hurt’?” Tobin said. “What do you tell a person who comes to you to get closer to holiness?”
Coming up with a credible answer to that question, he suggested, is more or less the job description for a Missionary of Mercy.