Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services distributes Communion during the "24 Hours for the Lord" Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington March 3. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

A Ministry of Mercy

How to be a comforting sign of God’s compassion in a hostile world

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Recently, in the wake of ongoing revelations about sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, I had the unfortunate experience of being spit upon in a Paris Metro. My Roman collar gave away my identity, but I have no idea who the stranger was, though her animosity was clear.

While the experience was perhaps unusual, it is no secret that the image of priesthood has been tarnished in the last few decades. I have had to ask myself how to sustain my call to be a good priest, a comforting sign of God’s mercy in the world, in the face of hostility and mistrust.

There is little doubt that Pope Francis has made mercy the overarching theme of his papacy. It is omnipresent. He chose this theme for his motto, has regularly preached on it, has written about it in various teachings, and even declared a Year of Mercy, which was held Dec. 8, 2015, through Nov. 20, 2016, to call the universal Church to reflect on it. While many have hailed this preoccupation with mercy as a breath of fresh air, some have taken issue with it, asserting that he is watering down doctrine with an overdose of mercy, tolerance and forgiveness.

During the Year of Mercy Pope Francis invited priests, in particular, to share in this ministry of mercy. Although the year is now past, the task of extending mercy to our hurting world never ends. Thus it behooves us to further reflect on why this theme shoult not be simply a passing fad, and why priests can still play a pivotal role in the pope’s long-term vision for a more merciful Church.

Revisiting the Year of Mercy

To begin, let’s recall how Francis explicitly involved priests in the Year of Mercy. When he issued the bull of indiction that proclaimed the year of mercy, titled Misericordiae Vultus (“Face of Mercy”), on April 11, 2015, he explained how he saw priests participating concretely in the entire Year of Mercy. He focused immediately on the one special feature of priestly ministry by which we priests participate intimately in Christ’s own ministry — through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Pope Francis elevates the Eucharist as he celebrates Mass for the Jubilee of Priests in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2016. The Mass was an event of the Holy Year of Mercy. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Any priest worthy of the call knows well the power of this sacramental ministry. We cannot sit in judgment waiting to pounce on a sinner. Mercy is required. Often I have been humbled by the ability of sinners to confront their own sinfulness and seek God’s pardon. In the face of their humility, how could I do otherwise than welcome them and try to mirror’s God’s own welcome?

How many times have I witnessed a transformation, perhaps even a conversion, in the midst of hearing someone’s confession who had seriously confronted their sinfulness and resolved to change their behavior. One of the most humbling aspects of my priestly ministry has always been this sacrament. I am amazed at its effectiveness. I know well that it is Christ who actually forgives sins, and that I remain a humble instrument of communicating that forgiveness. Yet it continues to inspire me and to make me reflect on my precious priestly identity.

This sacramental ministry of reconciliation, then, was the key way in which priests were invited to participate in the Year of Mercy. But Pope Francis also acknowledged that it was not always easy to be the minister of mercy in Christ’s name. He explains why in Misericordiae Vultus:

“I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy. We do not become good confessors automatically. We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy. Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that pardons and saves” (No. 17).

What is noticeable in this quotation is the direct connection between being a good confessor and a penitent ourselves. Only by recognizing our own weaknesses, our own failures, our own sins, and our own petty concerns can we be welcoming ministers of mercy to others.

Concretely, Pope Francis introduced a new practice to emphasize mercy. He proclaimed a special event throughout the world, inviting dioceses and parishes to hold a “24 Hours for the Lord,” to be celebrated on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent, the traditional penitential season. This practice, in fact, continues in many dioceses as a prelude to Holy Week and Easter.

Francis did even more to involve priests at the center of this movement for mercy. He designated several thousand priests as his special “missionaries of mercy” and sent them out as a “sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 18). He also gave them special authority to exercise in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which was later extended beyond the year of mercy. He explained his intention thus in Misericordiae Vultus:

“There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer. They will be, above all, living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon” (No. 18).

Lest anyone miss the firm biblical foundation of his vision, Francis evoked the famous story of the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:11-24) as his backdrop.

“Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again. Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgment is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 17).

Based off one of the parables of Jesus, James Tissot’s artwork depicts the kneeling prodigal son returning home and being accepted back by his father. Restored Traditions

What is most poignant in this passage is that Francis does not forget to extend mercy to the older son who himself is not able to be merciful to his younger, impulsive brother. Some may be stingy with their mercy, but priests are called upon to extend it as widely as the heavenly Father himself extends it.

In practice what this means for us as confessors implies at least four essentials.

• Listen before you speak. Effective confessors listen deeply and pose only questions absolutely necessary to understand the nature of the sin.

• Be less judgmental. Refrain from sermonizing in the confessional and give encouragement in ways to improve one’s conduct rather than condemning it.

• Empathize with the sinner. What do they really feel? Can you understand their hurt, their shame?

• Use the Scriptures. In your repertoire of advice to sinners, be ready to cite a brief passage of Scripture (there are so many!) that gives hope to sinners and that exhibits God’s boundless mercy.

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Prophets as Ministers of Mercy

This illustration of Old Testament history by William Hole (1846-1917) depicts Jeremiah, the prophet and the potter. Bridgeman Images

At the Lord’s command, Hosea uses the experience of his own wife’s infidelity as a model for how God will deal with sinful Israel. Despite her multiple infidelities, Hosea announces in poetic form:

“Therefore, I will now allure her, / and bring her into the wilderness, / and speak tenderly to her. … And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. … And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah (Not-Pitied), / and I will say to Lo-ammi (Not-My-People), / ‘You are my people’; / and he shall say, ‘You are my God’” (Hos 2:14, 19, 23, NRSV).

For his part, Jeremiah is told by God to speak this word of mercy to Israel: “Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: Return, rebel Israel, / oracle the Lord. / I will not remain angry with you, / For I am merciful, / oracle of the Lord; / I will not keep my anger forever” (Jer 3:12).

By our participation in Christ’s prophetic role, we priests also share the mission to proclaim God’s mercy to sinners. We can announce the Good News that sins are forgiven and sinners have another chance.

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Are Mercy and the Priesthood Inseparable?

Interestingly, despite our modern notions, nothing in the Bible directly connects mercy and the priesthood. This is true for several reasons. First of all, the only “priests” in the Bible apart from Jesus Christ, the Great and Eternal High Priest (cf. Heb 4:14), are the priests of the Old Testament. They are most associated with cult, and nothing in their behavior is formally attached to mercy. Rather, they are tied to maintaining honor, purity and authenticity with regard to worship, whether at shrines or at the Temple in Jerusalem. Mostly, the Bible emphasizes God’s character as merciful, to which all human beings are called to emulate.

But there are other vehicles for mercy in the Old Testament — namely, the prophets. Many of the classical prophets, despite harsh condemnation of Israel’s persistent failures as a covenant people, insist that God ultimately is filled with mercy. This is the message they were commanded to disseminate. Hosea and Jeremiah come to mind in their ability to recall that God’s mercy extends even to the most sinful of peoples (see the sidebar on Page 28). This observation can directly relate to priestly ministry today because theologically we presbyters participate in Christ’s threefold ministry of prophet, priest and shepherd. Mercy is nothing less than a participation in Christ’s prophetic ministry, which at one and the same time called (and calls) people to repentance and the reception of God’s mercy.

Regarding the New Testament, the situation is different. Since only Jesus Christ is the one true priest, and he is indeed directly tied to mercy and compassion (cf. Heb 4:15-16), then we can say that all subsequent sharers in his one priesthood (to be more accurate in our language, presbyters) are called to incarnate his merciful actions. All Jesus’ followers are called to be merciful, but this call obviously has greater import for those of us called to ordained ministry. We profess to be configured to him fully by means of the laying on of hands and gift of the Holy Spirit. From this perspective, we can assert that being merciful as a priest is not an option. It is part and parcel of our vocation. We are not ones to cast the first stone, but, as Jesus did, to announce that we do not condemn the sinner (Jn 8:7-11).

Mercy in the Context of Scandal

We can hardly address the theme of mercy and the priesthood without paying some heed to the ongoing ramifications of the sexual abuse scandal. In my ministry of ongoing formation of priests in many parts of the world, it is evident that priests are hurting. On the one hand, there is a feeling of sadness, hurt, woundedness and even betrayal by some of our brothers in the ordained ministry who violated their most sacred duty toward their flocks.

But there is another deep hurt. Some priests feel betrayed by their bishops. They feel that bishops threw them under the bus as a way of diminishing their own culpability in a crime and a moral failure, making priests sacrificial lambs led to slaughter. Some wonder: Where is mercy for the priests in this situation? Even worse, of course, in many people’s eyes, is the cover-up, ostensibly for the sake of preserving the good name of the Church. In this scenario, where is mercy for the victims? Have we really heard and felt their pain, their sense of betrayal?

In the wake of the scandal, we priests are walking a delicate line. We really cannot withhold our charge to be ministers of mercy in a world that sorely needs it on many different levels. By and large, many parishioners still love their own parish priests. They are shocked and angered by the sinful, immoral and illegal deeds of some priests — a small minority, in fact, which grabs the headlines — but they know we are human and have our failings. Yet they are more incensed and angered by cover-ups and denials on the part of bishops. The shocking lack of protection of the most vulnerable of God’s flock is, for many, almost unforgivable.

In such a context, we need to be careful. Our brothers who have gravely harmed the Body of Christ remain nevertheless members of our family of faith. But extending them “mercy” does not mean that there are no consequences for their actions. The priority really needs to be with the victims, whose faith in God’s chosen ministers has been profoundly shaken.

After the ongoing revelations of the summer of 2018 — the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick debacle and the flawed but sensational Pennsylvania grand jury report — little wonder that the People of God have minimal confidence in our ability to show mercy to others. So often we have made a priority of turning a blind eye to the wounding of the most vulnerable of the Lord’s flock.

Mercy Going Forward

So, what are the implications for priests going forward with this specter of mistrust hanging over our heads?

The key actually is rather simple. As Pope Francis has indicated on multiple occasions during his pontificate, ministers of mercy cannot expect to receive mercy if they have not given it. The only way we will gradually, over time and perhaps in hesitant steps, restore the faith of so many in our community is by showing that we have not lost our own way. As Jesus taught, we remain merciful even to those who hate us (cf. Mt 5:43-44).

We witness concretely that ministers of mercy remain true to our calling by listening with care and compassion to those who share their hurt and their sinfulness, and who desire to hear a comforting and encouraging word.

A clergyman hears confession from Pope Francis during a 2018 Lenten penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica. CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters

A recent seminar at Boston College on priesthood pointed out a path for priests in the future, using two quotations from Pope Francis. In essence, what is needed is an ongoing conversion:

An ever-deepening conversion to Christ and the Spirit nurtures priests as ministers of God’s merciful presence in the world: “Mercy is our way of making the entire life of God’s people a sacrament. Being merciful is not only ‘a way of life,’ but ‘the way of life.’”

“For priests themselves, an appreciation of God’s mercy for others and for themselves can cultivate freedom from the dangers of ‘workaholism,’ acquisitiveness and clericalism. The latter ‘forgets that the visibility and sacramentality of the Church belong to all the People of God, not only to the few chosen and enlightened’” (Origins, No. 48/31).

Notice that the quotation speaks of mercy “for others and for themselves.” We priests will not be able to be effective ministers of mercy if we are not willing to accept God’s outstretched hand toward us. Just as all the baptized remain in need of God’s mercy, so do we.

At the risk of oversimplification, let me propose five steps for remaining ministers of mercy.

Maintain a solid prayer life. Reach out to the Lord. Know that God is simultaneously extending an outstretched arm to you. Walk with Jesus in your daily life, especially when celebrating the sacraments. He is there accompanying us and acting through us.

Use the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently. Experience the mercy of God so that you can extend it to others.

Develop more fraternity with brother priests. Establish support groups and take time for occasions of recreation, reflection and socializing together.

Avoid becoming defensive. While injustice against priests does exist, becoming overly defensive about it does not help. We must rise above this human tendency. We should not be afraid to admit that some priests have perpetrated true evil and even irreparable harm. We can be sad and apologetic yet not succumb to self-defensiveness.

Never lose hope. The challenges facing priesthood can be discouraging. Dwelling on overwork, lack of vocations, inattention to ongoing formation, ongoing revelations about scandals long suppressed, and the like can lead priests to despair. That is not the merciful response. We must confidently believe that we, too, will receive what we extend to others.

FATHER RONALD D. WITHERUP, PSS, is Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice and author, most recently, of “Mercy and the Bible: Why It Matters!” (Paulist Press, $17.95).

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The Biblical Vocabulary of Mercy

The Bible often employs specific terms for the notion of mercy that can have a variety of nuances. Two aspects of the Old Testament vocabulary, for instance, are telling. The most frequent word in Hebrew used for mercy is chesed, which most priests will recognize from their seminary days as a principal word for “faithful steadfastness”; it is covenantal language. A related noun is chen, the word for “grace” or “favor.” Both of these indicate that faithful action on behalf of his covenant people, who so often are not faithful themselves, is in God’s DNA, so to speak.

Another, less frequent expression, reveals a nuance of God’s tendency to bestow mercy. The Hebrew verb racham (show mercy) is related to the root rechem (womb). It connotes deeply felt emotion, such as a woman feels for her children from the womb. The expression virtually communicates mercy as a kind of empathy, the capacity to identify with the suffering of others.

The New Testament picks up on these themes by using the same Greek expressions that are employed in the Septuagint, especially eleeo (have mercy) and its cognates. In addition, Jesus is often described in the synoptic Gospels as having deeply felt, gut-wrenching feelings for others (splanchnizomai) in their suffering.Extending mercy is based upon the capacity to feel others’ hurt or pain, to truly empathize with them.

In imitating the mercy of God, priests are called upon to emulate these biblical attitudes.

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