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Another way of understanding the Missionaries of Mercy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 16, 2016

My friend Father Roger Landry has posted an excellent explanation of the role of Missionaries of Mercy (of whom he is one), who have been commissioned by Pope Francis to make a special effort as confessors and “persuasive preachers of mercy” during the Jubilee Year. Reading his thoughts, I found myself musing on a question about this papal initiative.

The Missionaries of Mercy have been portrayed as “super-confessors,” who have been given special faculties to absolve sins that ordinarily call for a canonical punishment such as excommunication. That is not the entirety of their role, but it is an important part.

(There is a widespread, but inaccurate, belief that the Missionaries have been given special authority to absolve the sin of abortion. During the Jubilee Year, the Pope has given all priest-confessors that authority.)

Now here’s the problem: If you are guilty of one of those grave sins, how likely is it that you would know that you need to see a Missionary of Mercy? And unless you’re a regular reader of the diocesan newspaper, how would you know which priests have that status?

Before answering those questions, let’s take a look at the list of “reserved” sins that the Missionaries of Mercy are authorized to absolve:

  • physical violence against the Pope;
  • desecration of the Eucharist;
  • violation of the confessional seal; and
  • absolution of a partner in sins against chastity.

Not many people are guilty of violence against the Pope; let’s cross that one of the list. Of the three sins that remain, priests are somewhat more likely to be guilty of #2— just because they have more opportunity— and priests alone can be guilty of #3 and #4.

Bear in mind that priests are far more likely than others to know that they have incurred a canonical penalty through a “reserved” sin. Priests are also more likely to know which of their brother priests are these “super-confessors.” So maybe the Missionaries of Mercy should be understood as an outreach to wayward priests. I am not suggesting that this is the only purpose for the program. But it is an important purpose—and, I think, one that the Holy Father had in mind.

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has frequently urged priests to make use of the sacrament of reconciliation—as penitents themselves, not just as confessors. He realizes that there are far too many priests (as well as far too many laymen) who have abandoned the practice of regular confession. (Last year the German bishops reported that most of their priests go to confession once a year—if that.) The Missionaries of Mercy are not just “super-confessors.” They have also been commissioned as preachers, to help the faithful—priests included-- regain an appreciation for how God’s boundless mercy is dispensed in the confessional.

The Pope commissioned the Missionaries of Mercy on Ash Wednesday. The next day he joined in a penitential service for priests of the Rome diocese, and heard the confessions of several priests. I think he was setting an example.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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