Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis on the eve of Ash Wednesday gave some brief but very personal reflections to the 726 priests out of the 1,142 who will be serving as Missionaries of Mercy, “so that the mandate you will receive may be fulfilled in a coherent manner and as practical help for the many people who approach you."
Speaking without notes, the pontiff talked about the confession that changed his life. Good-humouredly, he also gave the missionaries some advice, like for those going to the Arctic “who should bundle up”. He also said that each would get a new vestment.
“To be a Missionary of Mercy,” the Holy Father said, “is a responsibility that is placed upon you to be the first first-hand witnesses of God’s proximity and of his way of loving - not our way, which is always limited and sometimes contradictory, but his way of loving and forgiving, which is in fact mercy. "
"First of all, I would like to remind you that in this ministry you are called to express the Church's motherhood. The Church is a Mother because it always generates new children in the faith. The Church is a Mother because it nourishes the faith. And the Church is a Mother also because it offers God’s forgiveness, by regenerating a new life through conversion.”
Yet, “We cannot run the risk that a penitent may not perceive the maternal presence of the Church that welcomes and loves him or her. If such a perception should fail, because of our rigidity, it would represent in the first place some serious harm for the faith itself, because it would prevent the penitent from living into the Body of Christ. It would also limit his or her sense of belonging to a community.
“By contrast, we are called to be the living expression of the Church that, as a mother, welcomes anyone who approaches her, knowing that through her one lives in Christ. Upon entering the confessional, let us always remember that it is Christ who welcomes; it is Christ who listens; it is Christ who forgives; it is Christ who gives peace. We are his ministers; and we are the first who always need to be forgiven by Him.
“Therefore, whatever the sin that is confessed or if the person does not know how to say it but let it be known, each missionary is called to remember his existence as a sinner and humbly place himself as a ‘channel’ for God's mercy. Let me say that for me it is a source of joy to remember the confession of 21 September 1953 that changed my life. I do not remember what he told me; I remember his smile, his fatherly embrace.
“Another important aspect is to know how to look at the desire for forgiveness present in the penitent’s heart. It is a desire that stems from grace and its action in people's lives, which allows one to feel God’s nostalgia, his love and his home. Let us not forget that at the beginning of conversion there is indeed this desire. The heart speaks to God recognising the evil done, but with hope for forgiveness.
“Such a desire is strengthened when one decides in one’s heart to change one’s life and sin no more. This is the time when one entrusts oneself upon God’s mercy, fully confident that He understood us, forgave us, and helped us. Let us give a lot of room to this desire for God and his forgiveness; let us facilitate its emergence as the true expression of the Spirit’s grace that leads to the heart’s conversion. Here, I want to make it clear that one must not only understand the language of words, but also that of deeds. If someone approaches you, perhaps he or she may not be able to say it, but you understand that they are saying it in their own way, by the act of coming, first condition, then repenting, second condition.
"Finally, let me mention one thing that is not often talked about, but one that is crucial, namely shame. It is not easy to place oneself in front of someone else, even though one knows that he represents God, and confess one’s sin to him. One feels shame both for what one has done, and for confessing it to another. Shame is an intimate feeling that affects personal life and requires an attitude of respect and encouragement on the part of the confessor. Shame is expressed a lot in the language of acts.
“From the first pages, the Bible speaks of shame. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the sacred author notes immediately, "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves"(Gen, 3:7). The first reaction to such shame is to hide from God (cf. Gen, 3:8-10). There is another passage in Genesis that strikes me, and it is the story of Noah's ark. We all know it, but rarely do we remember the episode where he got drunk.
“In the Bible, Noah is considered a righteous man; yet, he is not without sin. His drunkenness makes us realise that he too was weak, to the point of failing in his dignity, which the Scriptures express in the image of nudity. Two of his sons, however, take a blanket and cover him that he may regain his paternal dignity (cf. Gen 9:18-23) ".
"This passage leads me to say how important our role is in the confession. In front of us stands a 'naked person', a person who does not know how to talk, who does not know what to say, with his or her weaknesses and limits, with the shame of a sinner. Let us not forget that before us there is no sin, but the repentant sinner – the sinner 'I would not want to be’, a person who feels the desire to be accepted and forgiven; a sinner who pledges that he or she does not want to move away from the Father’s house, who with little strength left, wants to do everything possible to live as God’s child.
Hence, we are not called to judge, with a sense of superiority, as if we were immune from sin. On the contrary, we are called to act like Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth, who took a blanket to cover their father’s shame. Being a confessor in accordance with Christ’s heart is like covering a sinner’s heart with the blanket of mercy, so that he or she may not feel ashamed anymore and regain the joy of their filial dignity".
"It is not, therefore, with the club of judgment that we can bring the lost sheep back to the fold, but with the holiness of life, which is the principle of renewal and reform in the Church. Holiness is nourished by love and knows how to bring upon itself the weight of those who are weaker. A missionary of mercy carries the sinner on his shoulders, and consoles him or her with the power of compassion. [. . .] One can do a lot of harm to a soul if it is not accepted as by a father, as by a mother Church."
"I accompany you in this missionary adventure, giving you as examples two holy ministers of God's forgiveness, Saint Leopold and Saint Pio, along with many other holy priests who in their life bore witness to God's mercy. They will help you.
“When you feel the weight of the sins confessed to you, and the limitations of your person and your words, put trust in the power of mercy that meets everyone as a boundless love. May the Mother of Mercy assist and protect you in such a precious service."