Having spent the Holy Year fulfilling his mandate as one of Pope Francis’s Missionaries of Mercy, Father John Paul Zeller has some advice for his fellow priests when it comes to forgiveness and the sacrament of Confession.
“We need courageous priests that preach and teach clearly about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church,” Zeller told CNA Nov. 17.
“If we do not preach and teach about the joy of forgiveness that the Lord extends to us in the sacraments, then people will not come,” he said, but also stressed the need for priests to be patient in waiting for people to come to Confession.
“The Lord is very patient with us, so we as priests need to be patient with God’s people. If we sit and wait they will eventually come.”
Zeller said that several times throughout the Jubilee he has also “publicly begged pardon” on behalf of priests who had been “heavy-handed or cruel to people in the confessional.”
“I begged people’s forgiveness and encouraged them to return” in the cases when they had left the Church due to bad experiences in Confession, he said, noting that when he did this, “I saw many people wiping tears away from their eyes in the congregation and they found their way to the confessional.”
He shared one example of a woman who accepted his apology on behalf of her husband, who left the Catholic Church 25 years ago after being “screamed at” in the confessional.
After asking for the phone number of the woman’s husband, Zeller said, “I called him personally and begged his forgiveness.”
“As priests, we need to be very patient and compassionate with people in the confessional,” Zeller said, adding that early in his formation a mentor told him that “priests are to be like lions from the pulpit and like gentle lambs in the confessional.”
A Friar with the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, founded by Mother Angelica, Zeller is currently stationed in Birmingham, Ala., and was one of more than 1,000 priests who were sent out around the world as ambassadors of mercy.
Selected as missionaries from every continent, the Missionaries of Mercy placed a special emphasis on their role as preachers and confessors. They were given two special faculties that are usually unavailable to the average priest, the first being that they were not limited in geographic location in terms of hearing confessions.
Usually a priest has to ask permission from the local bishop before hearing confessions in a diocese other than their own, however for the Missionaries of Mercy that was not the case.
A second aspect of the Missionaries’ mission was that they were able to absolve sins otherwise reserved to the Holy See.
Bishops were encouraged to contact Missionaries of Mercy in nearby dioceses and invite them to come to their dioceses.
In his interview with CNA, Zeller spoke about his experience as a Missionary of Mercy throughout the Holy Year, reflecting on the places he went and moments that stood out for him as a pastor.
Q: You were commissioned as a Missionary of Mercy on Ash Wednesday for the Jubilee. Now that the Jubilee is almost over, what has your overall experience been like?
Zeller: My overarching experience has been one of gratitude to the Lord for His abundant Mercy. As Pope Francis has said often, “God never tried of forgiving us.” When Pope Francis spoke to the Missionaries of Mercy, on the evening before our commissioning, he spoke to us about the “closeness of God.” He wanted us to convey to people that the Lord is near and that He is not distant.
It is we who distance ourselves from the Lord. The Lord is Merciful and He is always beckoning us back and opening up His Sacred Heart through the Sacraments of the Church, most especially the Sacraments of Penance and the Most Holy Eucharist.
What all did you do this year in your role as a Missionary of Mercy? Did you travel? If so, where did you go? What kind of events did you speak at?
It seems like I have been in a whirlwind the entire year! I have traveled throughout the year. First of all, I traveled to Rome in February to be commissioned by Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday. 726 of the 1071 Missionaries throughout the world were personally able to make it to Rome to receive the mandate from the pope.
As soon as I returned, I spoke in Miami, Florida, at a Medical Conference for Doctors, Nurses and Volunteers for the annual North American Lourdes Volunteers Medical Staff Conference. I spoke about the spiritual aspects of taking those with special needs on pilgrimage. We sponsored a Divine Mercy retreat in Hanceville, Alabama at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in June, a few months after Mother Angelica passed into Eternal Life. I gave four talks and heard confessions all weekend along with the members of my Community, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word.
I was back in Florida again in August for the Benedicta Leadership retreat and Women of Grace Conference at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida as a speaker and providing the Sacraments. I gave two Awakening Retreats in Alabama for college age students, as well as two Leadership retreats for college students. I also gave a retreat to high school students in Alabama.
Perhaps one of the best trips of the year was to the Southeast Alaska Catholic Conference in Juneau, Alaska. Yes, I said Alaska! His Excellency, Bishop Edward Burns, wanted to have a Missionary of Mercy present during the weekend to respond to the Holy Father’s invitation to invite those Missionaries into their diocese to preach and to hear Confessions.
Wrapping up the Year of Mercy, I traveled to Kentucky to the Fathers of Mercy annual Vocation day weekend. There were a few other small retreats or talks that I did throughout the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.
Did you have any extra or specific responsibilities in your community, or at the EWTN headquarters?
My assignment changed a few months after I got back from Rome and I moved to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville a week after Mother Angelica died. My brother MFVA priests made it possible for me to travel a good bit throughout the year and for that I am grateful to them.
At EWTN, we have a gigantic congregation by way of modern means of social communication. Our chapel in Irondale, Alabama may seat 70, but we have the capacity to preach to over 264 million households through cable systems in over 145 countries as well as the capacity to reach millions through radio – Sirius/XM and IHeart satellite almost 500 domestic and international AM and FM radio affiliates, and EWTN still owns the largest privately owned short wave radio station in the world.
Mother Angelica would often tell us friars that we don’t have to go very far to be missionaries – through the media we reach the entire world. It was a great opportunity to preach and teach on themes such as Divine Mercy, Forgiveness, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy and the importance of going to frequent confession. Both at the Shrine and at EWTN, I heard sometimes hours of Confessions, every day.
Is there a specific moment or encounter that stands out to you most, or that left a particular impact?
Too many to mention! Encountering so many people throughout the year that are suffering in mind and/or body. There was a mother who brought her 4 1/2 year-old daughter to the Shrine to pray and beg the Lord for healing and strength.
This little girl, Elizabeth has a tumor in her brain. I spent a lot of time with them. I remember walking alongside Elizabeth and holding her hand and just sensing like I was holding the hand of Jesus. It was powerful and I’ll never forget it.
What would you say has been the biggest fruit of this year for you, both personally and as a priest?
Well, I cannot imagine my personal life and my priesthood as separate things, but I will say that the Lord has surprised me many times throughout the year. The biggest “fruit” I would say is the many times I tangibly experienced God’s Mercy on a penitent in the Confessional.
As a priest, to be an instrument in the person of Jesus Christ, to be able to wipe away perhaps the crusted filth of decades through sacramental absolution is one of the greatest things I do every day.
You mentioned previously that this experience has changed your priesthood. How?
I experienced many times throughout the Year of Mercy, just how close the Lord is. I believe the commission I received from the Pope helped me in my understanding of the Sacrament of Penance. It is important for people to know that frequent confession leads to a more fruitful participation at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
As a priest, I go to Confession about every two weeks or more. I have learned that I cannot be a good confessor if I first am not a good penitent. Throughout the year, the way in which the faithful approached the Sacrament of Penance and expressed their heartfelt contrition helped me to ask the question to myself, “am I that sorry for my sins?”
I experienced many times in the Confessional how God can move a person to repentance. Only God can bring about repentance. Repentance is a miracle of Grace. I consider every time a person kneels down for Confession to be a miracle of God’s Grace.
Now that the Jubilee is over, what would you like to take from this experience moving forward?
Whenever a Jubilee is called for or a particular year is deemed as a “Year of Faith” or a “Year of St. Paul,” it is as if a magnifying glass is put on a particular aspect of the deposit of faith. It’s not as if because the Jubilee Year of Mercy is over that we as Christians stop being merciful and discontinue practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy! The Mercy of the Lord endures forever!
As Christians and especially as a priest, I pray that I never grow tired of being a Missionary of Mercy. A lady at the Shrine told me a few days ago, “Father, you will always be a Missionary of Mercy.”
Based off your experience during the Jubilee, do you have any advice for priests and confessors?
I am only still three and a half years as a priest and still a “baby-priest” as they say. I am convinced that when priests themselves love Confession and practice it themselves, it shows in their life, how they offer Mass and how they preach the Gospel. As St. Paul says, “Faith comes through hearing.”
We need courageous priests that preach and teach clearly about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church. I would hope that priests invite the faithful often to frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance. If we do not preach and teach about the joy of forgiveness that the Lord extends to us in the Sacraments, then people will not come.
Also, priests need to be okay with sitting in the Confessional for extended periods of time and even sitting alone waiting for people. The Lord is very patient with us, so we as priests need to be patient with God’s people. If we sit and wait they will eventually come.
St. John Mary Vianney bears testimony to this. When he first came to Ars, France as a parish priest, there were practicing Catholics. He would go into the Confessional and wait. Eventually, people were coming in droves from all over Europe to have this saintly priest hear their confession.
Finally, a few times throughout this Jubilee Year of Mercy, I have publicly begged pardon on the behalf of priests that may have been “heavy-handed” or cruel to people in the Confessional. I begged people’s forgiveness and encouraged them to return…
When I did so, I saw many people wiping tears away from their eyes in the congregation and they found their way to the Confessional. One lady came up to me and said, “Father, I accept your apology on behalf of my husband. A priest screamed at him in the Confessional and he has not been back to the Catholic Church for over 25 years.”
I asked her for her husband’s phone number and I called him personally and begged his forgiveness. As priests, we need to be very patient and compassionate with people in the Confessional. A priest-mentor once told us early in my formation, priests are to be like lions from the pulpit and like gentle lambs in the Confessional.