On Ash Wednesday this year, Pope Francis welcomed more than 700 “missionaries of mercy” to the Vatican to receive a special mandate. These are priests who responded to Francis’ call, prior to the Year of Mercy, for members of the clergy to take on this role, which includes special authority to absolve sins for which absolution has been traditionally reserved to the Holy See. More than 1,000 priests from around the globe have been given this mandate, including 125 from the United States. They will seek to live out this mission of mercy in their own dioceses but may also be invited by bishops to visit other dioceses.
It is no coincidence that this commission coincided with the start of the Lenten season, during which the church reflects more deeply on prayer, penance and sacrifice. The sending forth of these missionaries serves as a reminder of the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation in healing our relationship with Christ and our community. But while the official title may be given only to some, the mission of mercy has been given to all of us. The Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization encouraged priests who were not among those chosen for the role to “work as witnesses of mercy in their own daily missions, in the parishes, institutes, and other communities where they offer their service with love.” And the same can be urged of all people of good will. Mercy is not confined to a particular role or state in the church but rather is given to us freely by God and lived out fully and truly by all who desire it.