by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “WOW!!! What a powerful day!” read the entry on Father Joseph Arsenault’s Facebook page on Feb. 9.
He had good reason to be so enthusiastic.
Father Joseph and about 750 of his brother priests were in Rome to meet Pope Francis and prepare for their commissioning as “missionaries of mercy” for the jubilee Year of Mercy on Feb. 10, Ash Wednesday.
On Feb. 9, the priests processed from Castel Sant’Angelo to St. Peter’s Basilica, where they entered through the Holy Door.
Inside the basilica, they venerated the relics of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold Mandic, two famous Capuchin confessors. They also met with Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace.
“It was a wonderful encounter with the Holy Father,” said Father Joseph. “He spoke very passionately about extending God’s mercy. And really, as he tends to do, spoke from his heart about how important this was and he wanted us to be real agents of God’s mercy to the church.”
On Ash Wednesday, the missionaries of mercy concelebrated Mass with Pope Francis.
When Pope Francis surprised the world by proclaiming a jubilee Year of Mercy, he added to the surprise by announcing that he would appoint missionaries of mercy in countries around the world.
Although 750 of the missionaries were in Rome for the commissioning, there are 1,142 scattered throughout the world.
These missionaries of mercy are commissioned to do two things.
The first is that they both preach and teach about God’s mercy, especially through the sacrament of reconciliation. The second is that they have been given special faculties to pardon sins reserved to the Holy See.
These sins are “reserved” because the penalty of excommunication is attached to them. Lifting the penalty normally requires that a confessor contact Rome and then receive a ruling regarding a penance, before granting absolution.
The letter of commissioning that the missionaries of mercy received lists four reserved sins: 1) profaning the Eucharist; 2) use of physical force against the pope; 3) absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”); and 4) a direct violation against the sacramental seal by a confessor.
Father Joseph is the only missionary of mercy in the archdiocese.
“In my time as a missionary of mercy, if I encounter someone with one of these sins, it will be a surprise because they are so uncommon,” said Father Joseph.
“But in [commissioning us], the Holy Father is making the point very strongly that there is nothing that you could have done that is beyond the mercy of God,” he continued. “And these men have the ability to forgive anything you have done.”
This is the real genius of Pope Francis, according to Father Joseph. Many Catholics have inhibitions and mistaken ideas about the sacrament of reconciliation. Some might think that they can’t be forgiven.
“It is not only extending that mercy to those who think they are beyond the forgiveness of God, but it is also an opportunity for people to recognize that they need mercy, that they are indeed sinners,” said Father Joseph. “We live in a world that wants us to believe that we don’t sin. Sure, we might make mistakes here and there but, even then, it’s really not a bad thing.”
“We live in a world that wants us to believe sin is uncommon — and it’s not, if we believe the words of Jesus,” he continued. “It’s very real in our world. If we don’t acknowledge the sin, we don’t acknowledge the need for mercy. So, this is an opportunity to grow in awareness of our own sinfulness by seeing how great God’s mercy is.”
Father Joseph will be available for the sacrament of reconciliation at various locations, especially St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas. He has also been invited to participate in two parish missions.
“I’m available for retreats and days of recollection,” said Father Joseph. “If I’m invited and available, I’ll go.”