ROME – When Pope Francis first installed the Missionaries of Mercy six years ago, sending them out as special channels of God’s forgiveness and compassion, it was a clear sign of what he believes the heart of priesthood is all about.
More than obeying rules or becoming overly invested in the fine print, being a priest for Francis is about closeness to the people, being a compassionate father who is eager to listen and quick to forgive.
That, in a nutshell, is largely what his Jubilee of Mercy, of which the ministry of the Missionaries of Mercy is a byproduct, was meant to convey to the world.
One of the missionaries sees this ministry as a vessel of God’s mercy, and it is how he has always seen the priesthood and what each priest, in their own way, is called to be.
“Every priest is meant to be a Missionary of Mercy. – God as it were calling out through us as his ambassadors, inviting them to be reconciled to him,” Missionary of Mercy Father Roger Landry told Crux, saying that the broad priestly role “is exemplified in the special mission Missionaries of Mercy have received.”
Landry recently concluded seven years of service to the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations and is taking a brief sabbatical before taking on his new role as the Catholic Chaplain at Columbia University this coming fall.
In addition to his role as a Missionary of Mercy, Landry also serves as an ecclesiastical assistant to the U.S. branch of the charity Aid to the Church in Need and as one of the Eucharistic Preachers of the U.S. bishops’ conference in the lead up to the Eucharistic Revitalization, which is set to launch in June.
On a personal level, Landry said being a Missionary of Mercy has given him a “title” to do what he’s always felt called to do and has “summarized what I think the priesthood is all about.”
Landry believes this so firmly that he said he plans to have Missionarius Misericordiae (Missionary of Mercy) engraved on his tombstone, “because it’s what I’ve always aspired to be, as a Christian and a priest.”
“Being able to use the special faculties given to us by the Pope, as well, has been a huge privilege, because the Holy Father wanted to make reconciliation easier for people in those circumstances, and it’s been a real joy to be an instrument of God and the church to do so,” he said.
Established as a special ministry during the 2015-2016 Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Missionaries of Mercy are dedicated in a specific way to educating people on God’s mercy and administering it.
At the time of their mandate, which was extended indefinitely following the Jubilee of Mercy, the missionaries were given two special faculties that are usually unavailable to the average priest, the first being that they could licitly hear confessions without restriction anywhere.
They were also given the faculty to absolve sins otherwise reserved to the Holy See, meaning the sins are serious enough to incur a censure that an ordinary confession and absolution cannot lift, such as profaning the Eucharist; giving absolution to a partner in the sin of adultery; a violation of the Seal of Confession by a priest; or using physical force against the pope.
The Missionaries of Mercy are overseen by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, which over the summer will be merged along with several other Vatican offices into a mega-department called the Dicastery for Evangelization.
Currently totaling 1,040, the missionaries are gathered in Rome for a special April 23-25 conference – the first they’ve had since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic – where they are attending several workshops, as well as moments of prayer and a sharing of experiences.
They concelebrated Pope Francis’s Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday and were scheduled to have a special audience with him Monday.
In the six years that have elapsed between the Jubilee of Mercy, Landry said his job has been about three things: Preaching about God’s mercy, making it available through the sacrament of Confession, and being a concrete sign of it by performing spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
During the jubilee, Landry said he incorporated mercy into his daily homilies, and has talked about it in events he’s led such as clergy days or retreats for young people, college students, and seminarians.
“That year changed the way I preach in general, so that I find myself perpetually focusing on God’s mercy in other preaching and writing,” he said, saying he has also increased the number of confessions he provides, and has often been asked to serve as a confessor for clergy and seminary retreats and workshops, and penance services.
He’s also increased the work he does with the poor and needy in and around New York, and just being dressed as a priest, he said, elicits special requests for food and charity.
Landry said he is contacted “several times a year” by people who are in need of his faculty to forgive reserved sins.
When the coronavirus hit, Landry said the pandemic impacted his ministry in several ways, given the restrictions placed on public liturgies and the public celebration of the sacraments.
Some, he said, appreciated the church’s sacraments more by not having access to them, while others concluded that if the sacraments were not being offered in a time of crisis, with believers instead being encouraged to turn to spiritual substitutes, “then the sacraments themselves could not be all that important after all.”
“Both responses impacted my work as a Missionary of Mercy,” he said, saying he was a “go-to priest” for those who needed confession during periods of lockdown.
“Missionaries in general have a reputation for taking greater risk and exercising greater pastoral creativity and I was happy to do so in order for people to receive God’s mercy, meeting outside in parks and gardens as well as in churches,” he said, saying people were genuinely grateful for the ability to go to confession.
Now that public liturgies and sacraments are available again, Landry said many have been eager to get back to the sacraments, whereas others have grown distant, believing the sacraments aren’t as important as they thought.
In these cases, “it’s been important in preaching and other means to encourage them to return and to correct some confusions,” he said.
Speaking of this weekend’s Rome meeting for the Missionaries of Mercy, Landry said those who made it have been able to participate in workshops, hear each other’s confessions, and share common moments of prayer.
The biggest highlight, however, was concelebrating Divine Sunday Mass with Pope Francis, he said. Francis’s love for Missionaries of Mercy “really shines when we’re together with him.”
Noting that Pope Francis often states that God never tires of showing mercy, but humanity tires of asking for it, Landry said the Missionaries of Mercy “are, for him, I think untiring ambassadors of that indefatigably merciful God.”
The American contingent of the missionaries, he said, get together often to share and coordinate, and are planning on making visits to the four pontifical basilicas in Rome as well as the tomb of St. Peter, and the Sistine Chapel, “looking at them through the prism of God’s mercy.”
By doing this, he said they hope to be “reinforced in our work of offering God’s mercy so that that final encounter will be a happy one!”
Going forward, Landry said he hopes the mandate of the Missionaries of Mercy will never be revoked, saying the fact that they have continued until now shows that “the church clearly wants us to continue doing what we’ve been striving to do.”
Asked whether they will have any special tasks for the upcoming Jubilee of 2025, which is dedicated to the theme, “Pilgrims of Hope,” Landry said the details are still being worked out, but believes the Missionaries of Mercy will be asked “to be even more available. But we’re waiting to see.”
They are also waiting to see how Francis’s recent reorganization of the Roman curia impacts their ministry, if at all, since the department tasked with overseeing them, and the organization of the 2025 jubilee, will be merged with several others.
In the U.S., he said, the Missionaries of Mercy’s goal for the immediate future is to “make ourselves very available” as part of a Eucharistic revitalization the U.S. bishops are launching for 2022-24, culminating in the upcoming national Eucharistic Congress to be held in July 2024 in Indianapolis.
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