ROME – Pope Francis on Monday, with his new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, laid out a beguiling vision of holiness not as matter of heroic achievement or extraordinary mystical experience, but rather something worked out in the concrete details of everyday life – like a loving parent raising a child, or “small gestures” and sacrifices such as deciding not to pass on gossip.
Ultimately, as Francis sees it, becoming saints is a matter of showing the same mercy to others that God shows to humanity. Mercy, to use the phrase Francis employed in his bull establishing a special jubilee in 2016, is “the beating heart of the Gospel.”
It’s a message with potential resonance for people everywhere, including the very “seekers” and “nones” who have become the apple of the eye of the Church’s most ardent evangelists. The question is how to make sure it doesn’t all just remain words on paper, but actually begins to permeate and infuse the life of the Church at the retail level.
That, in a nutshell, is where the Missionaries of Mercy come in.
On Ash Wednesday in 2016, Pope Francis created and commissioned this new corps of priests, including both diocesan clergy and also priests from religious congregations. He didn’t conceive of the Missionaries of Mercy as a new order or movement, but rather as an informal network of priests who, within the pre-existing circumstances of their lives and ministries, would take on a special responsibility for becoming instruments of mercy.
He gave the priests who agreed to take up that responsibility special faculties, such as permission to hear confessions freely anywhere in the world, without permission in advance from the local bishops, and also to lift certain censures, or ecclesiastical penalties, normally reserved to the pope alone.
Originally conceived as a project only for the span of the jubilee year, Francis later decided to extend the mandate and, in effect, to turn the Missionaries of Mercy into a permanent presence within the Catholic Church.
Perhaps one way to think about the role he sees them playing is this: Francis views himself as a spiritual general going into battle on behalf of the Gospel of Mercy, and the Missionaries of Mercy are, in effect, his foot soldiers. All in, there are more than 1,000 such priests all over the world, and they make a special priority of making the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, as widely available as possible.
On Tuesday, Francis met with those foot soldiers in Rome, providing an unusually extended set of marching orders which reflect just how important the broad vision sketched in Gaudete et Exsultate is to his sense of the kind of Church he wants to lead. Francis received the missionaries in an audience in the Vatican’s Sala Regia, and then also presided over a Mass with them in St. Peter’s Square, on what proved to be a mild and sunny day in Rome suggesting that spring has almost arrived.
For those who know how to tell when Francis is engaged with something or when he’s largely phoning it in, all his tells were on display Tuesday, suggesting a pope for whom these moments were keen priorities.
Francis began by praising the work of the missionaries, saying “I’ve received many reports of conversions that have taken place through your service.” He then got quickly to the heart of the matter, saying that offering reconciliation is critical, because “the Church cannot, must not, and does not wish to create any barrier or difficulty that gets in the way of access to the forgiveness of God.”
“God needs men who carry his forgiveness and his mercy into the world,” Francis said.
To be an effective carrier of mercy, Francis said, begins with a deep awareness that one has already experienced God’s mercy in profoundly personal ways. That doesn’t mean being content with sin or failure, he said, but rather understanding that everyone, sooner or later, longs to be forgiven.
“It’s not a matter of adapting oneself to the idea of being a sinner, as if, almost, to justify it,” he said. “That annuls the power of conversion. But we always have to come back to this key point: God treated me with mercy. That’s the key for becoming a collaborator of God.”
As he did at some length in Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis warned the Missionaries of Mercy against the corrupting effects of “neo-Pelagianism,” meaning that one can achieve holiness simply as a result of one’s efforts, one’s punctiliousness about following the rules, or some other form of moral achievement.
“Reconciliation is not, as sometimes people think, our private initiative or the fruit of our commitment,” the pope said. “If it were, we’d fall into that form of neo-Pelagianism that tends to over-estimate man and his projects, forgetting that the Savior is God and not us.”
Francis, for whom hearing confessions is a deeply personal priority, then reflected at some length on the dispositions he believes confessors need.
“Our priestly heart should perceive the miracle of a person who’s met God and has already felt the impact of his grace,” he said, in making the argument that priests shouldn’t think the process of reconciliation begins the moment someone walks into a confessional.
He then called on confessors to be merciful, and not to get in the way of reconciliation reaching its goal. He ticked off a series of attitudes that might have that effect.
“For example, in order to defend the integrity of an evangelical ideal, the actual steps somebody is taking day by day can be overlooked,” he said.
Those who pay careful attention to Church affairs probably will hear echoes of the debates over Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s controversial 2016 document opening a cautious door to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, in such words, but it seemed clear Francis was trying to paint against a much broader canvas.
“It’s not permitted to violate the sacred space of a person in his or her relationship with God,” he said.
“The priest must not make someone feel guilty for the wrong of which they’ve repented,” he said. “He should encourage them to look to the future with new eyes.”
In the Mass later on Tuesday, Francis emphasized anew that to be an effective missionary of mercy, a priest must first himself be transformed. However, as in Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis emphasized that transformation is not a matter of extraordinary experience or spiritual gifts.
“It’s not a matter of becoming ‘seized’ priests, almost as if they’re entrusted with an extraordinary charism,” he said.
“No, we’re talking about normal priests, simple, mild, balanced, but capable of allowing themselves to be constantly regenerated by the Spirit, receptive to its strength, free on the inside – above all, from themselves – because they’re moved by the ‘breath’ of the Spirit that blows where it will.”
From the beginning, Francis, in terms of his pastoral and political priorities, has been a pope of the little guy – the champion of the average person, the underdog, and the forgotten.
Taken in tandem with Gaudete et Exsultate, his messages to the Missionaries of Mercy on Tuesday suggest that now he’s also trying to lay out a spirituality for the little guy, a path to holiness both for the world and, in a special way, for his priests, which sees the ordinary as the key to it all.