Pope asks ‘missionaries of mercy’ to open ‘doors of people’s hearts’

Priests who are “missionaries of mercy” for the Holy Year held bowls of ashes as Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 10. (CNS Photo by Paul Haring)

Priests who are “missionaries of mercy” for the Holy Year held bowls of ashes as Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 10. (CNS Photo by Paul Haring)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.”

These are the first eight words in “Misericordiae Vultus,” the document in which Pope Francis calls for the jubilee Year of Mercy.

Those are also the words Father J. Mark Spalding, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Louisville and pastor of Holy Trinity Church, heard from the Holy Father while at the Vatican recently.

Father J. Mark Spalding

Father J. Mark Spalding

Pope Francis named more than 1,000 priests, including Father Spalding, as “missionaries of mercy” and urged them to go home and be “the face of Jesus Christ” to people in their communities.

“He explained what a good confessor is and said a priest sits there as the face of Jesus Christ to the one coming to the sacrament,” Father Spalding said during an interview last week.

Father Spalding was one of about 700 of these diocesan and religious order priests who gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, to
receive their special mandate from Pope Francis.

Pope Francis said their mandate is to be “signs and instruments of God’s pardon,” according to a Catholic News Service story. The missionaries are expected to serve in their dioceses, and may be invited by bishops to visit other dioceses, as well.

“Dear brothers, may you be able to help open the doors of people’s hearts” as well as bless, heal and raise them up with a father’s love, Pope Francis told them.

Father Spalding said he sees his role as a missionary of mercy as an opportunity to share the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation.

“It’s such a rich sacrament and yet at times it’s forgotten or abandoned or seen as a children’s sacrament. … It’s truly a sacrament for all ages. It’s a sacrament that brings us into the very heart of God,” he said. “A year like this gives us the opportunity to change that for the better.”

Missionaries of mercy can be invited by local bishops “to give missions or facilitate specific initiatives organized for the jubilee, with a particular attention given to the sacrament of reconciliation,” according to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the office organizing events for the Year of Mercy.

In “Misericordiae Vultus,” Pope Francis described the missionaries as “persuasive preachers of mercy,” and urged bishops to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation and pastors to “be diligent in calling back the faithful ‘to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace’ (Heb 4:16).”

Father Spalding and the other missionaries also met with Pope Francis on Feb. 9 in the Apostolic Palace. Father Spalding said Pope Francis instructed the priests to be “good confessors.”

At times, Father Spalding said, the Holy Father deviated from the prepared text and showed a “certain dynamism.”

The Holy Father told the priests that the experience of reconciliation should be one of “compassion and true joy in the knowledge that God is a loving and forgiving God,” Father Spalding said.

The pope also told them that the sacrament of reconciliation is not meant to be a torture chamber for the penitent; priests are not lawyers cross-examining a witness, Father Spalding said.

Before the meeting in the Apostolic Palace, the missionaries took part in a procession that began on the Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading to St. Peter’s Square. As they processed, the priests recited prayers, sang hymns and chanted psalms in their various language groups.

From there they passed through the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s into the basilica, passing by the mortal remains of Padre Pio. They passed into the Vatican Gardens and arrived at the Apostolic Palace.

“At the start of the procession, the priests were sort of laid back, still in conversation,” Father Spalding said. “But as we processed forward and got closer to the Holy Door, there was a certain moment of reverence and solemnity of what we were about to do.”

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