Pope Francis welcomes Missionaries of Mercy back to Rome
By Thaddeus Jones
Around 300 Missionaries of Mercy from across the world are gathered in Rome for the Third international meeting of the Missionaries of Mercy, organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Pope Francis called them back to Rome to meet, pray and share their experiences over this Divine Mercy Sunday weekend. They had been scheduled to come to Rome over a year ago, but the pandemic caused the meeting to be postponed until health safety circumstances permitted.
The creation of the Missionaries of Mercy came about for the 2016 Jubilee of Mercy, but Pope Francis decided to prolong their service given the many testimonies of conversion attributed to their special ministry.
Pope Francis encouraged them in his last meeting with them four years ago saying that “the message that we bear in Christ’s name is that of making peace with God…. And God needs people to bring the message of his pardon and mercy to the world.” This is the mission that Jesus entrusted to his apostles the evening of his resurrection.
Among the Missionaries of Mercy present in Rome are Fr. David Caron, OP, a Dominican priest who directs Spiritual Outreach for the charitable organization Cross Catholic Outreach, along with Monsignor Ted Bertagni and Fr. Bernard Olszewski, all from the US and working with Cross Catholic Outreach. They were named Missionaries of Mercy in 2015 and for over seven years now have offered this special ministry of service for the Church.
Round table interview with Msgr. Ted Bertagni, Fr. Bernard Olszewski, and Fr. David Caron, OP
Q: Welcome back to Rome. Another meeting was called and obviously it was delayed as we know due to the pandemic. What does it feel like to be back here in Rome and then meeting with all these Missionaries of Mercy from around the world?
Fr. David Caron, OP: First of all, it's great to be back in the Eternal City and it's wonderful to see so many people out in the streets and coming into the churches and then to see our own Missionaries of Mercy from around the world. We've been blessed in the US. We've already had two gatherings of the Missionaries of Mercy in the United States. Every time it's been a spiritual ‘shot in the arm’ that we need to keep us going and keep us focused on what Pope Francis wants us to do.
Q: And here we’re emphasizing mercy, coming out of the Jubilee of Mercy when Pope Francis thought of creating this very special outreach that has continued since then. How has this gone in your own ministries and are there any stories you would like to share?
Msgr. Ted Bertagni: I would say one of the main focuses that Pope Francis emphasized when we first became Missionaries of Mercy was the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and that reconciliation was a way of welcoming people into the Church, welcoming people back to the Church. Much like the Father welcomed back the Prodigal Son in the scriptures, in the Gospels. And so all of us in our own ministries, being Missionaries of Mercy, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation have had some sort of extreme examples of that. I've been in a couple of parishes where we had 24 hours of continual confessions, and two or three of the Missionaries of Mercy rotated in so that we would constantly have confessions going on for 24 hours. It was amazing the kind of response we got in that regard. One man came in and he said, ‘I haven't been to confession for forever, I don't even know how to do this, but since I saw such a line out there, I thought something good must be happening in there, so I came in!’ I said well something good is happening here, as a matter of act, the Lord is bringing you back home. So, I think it's that welcoming back and being a person who welcomes people back to the faith that is a very important part of being a Missionary of Mercy that I've experienced.
Fr. Bernard Olszewski: I think also, the theme of mercy - if one reads the documents of Pope Francis - the theme of mercy weaves through all his writings. The mercy of recognizing and accepting one another as the other and meeting them in their life as they are and walking with them. And yes, one of the most profound ways is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think every Missionary of Mercy has had the opportunity of a miraculous encounter, one which in human terms could not be explained as to why this person came to confession at this time with this priest. And it has been extremely powerful, extremely powerful. But I think over and beyond that, when Pope Francis addressed us at the last meeting, his emphasis focused on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but it was also the attitude with which we carry out our ministry on every level, so that we are attentive to how we look at one another, how we greet one another, what our body language is like and that we continuously manifest the openness of the arms of the loving Father. No matter where we encounter the individual, no matter how we encounter them, but especially sacramentally.
Fr. David Caron, OP: Pope Francis writes and speaks about the spirituality of accompaniment, which naturally goes along with what the two fathers have been mentioning already in the sacrament, but also in everyday life. But a third component that he stressed, and we do in our ministry is the Corporal Works of Mercy, and so from Matthew 25. In our ministry at Cross Catholic Outreach, lots of other places and other organizations and ways, we reach out and fulfill those lines of the Corporal Works of Mercy and the saying we feed the hungry, we give water to the thirsty, we house those without homes, and we visit the imprisoned. We encourage people to basically serve one another. And in an era and a context where fewer and fewer people are going to church, Missionaries of Mercy as men of hospitality and welcome, can serve as evangelizing agents for the Church. And I honestly believe that's one way we're going to get people back to church, through those simple gestures of being and doing Matthew 25, those Corporal Works of Mercy. Lots of people are doing wonderful things in the world, they’re not necessarily just doing them with the Church. They don't know the Church even has these Corporal Works of Mercy, so it's a great opportunity for us to evangelize and to bring people back to the Lord.
Msgr. Ted Bertagni: And as Fr. Dave mentioned, the idea of engagement is so important because it's in a sense putting a face to and embodying the life of the Church out into the world. And in a sense, when we look at charity and mercy, that is the best part of the Church. That's the strongest part. That's the thing that is most attractive, especially for young people. And as pointed out, one of the underlying themes that we hear often in reconciliation is people bemoaning the fact that their children are not going to church anymore. I think this whole ministry is a way of inviting and encouraging people to come back into the faith and come back to church in a way that they didn't before. I think our ministry in a sense helps them do that. Also at Cross Catholic Outreach, we do things such as food packing, so that people get involved together as a group and build community, as well as feed the hungry and minister to those most in need. So, there's a real tangible way in which Missionaries of Mercy can live out that that charism that was given to us by Pope Francis.
Q: I was going to ask, and you’ve already given some answers on how this approach, this emphasis on mercy is a key way to bring new life into the Church, to revitalize it in today's very secularized times, and also today’s very divisive times. Society is so polarized; all institutions appear to be suffering from this. How do you hope to go forward in this continuing ministry that is bringing this most fundamental message of the Lord's mercy for everyone?
Fr. Bernard Olszewski: I think for myself the possibility of once again gathering together that there is strength in numbers. And so just feeling the energy of one another, of hearing the stories of what has occurred since the last time we have met, but also receiving spiritual instruction. Our meeting here is basically a retreat for us to be able to increase our capacity to understand, and then to translate that understanding into action. There is nothing more powerful I believe then the power of prayer. We will worship before the eucharistic Lord and pray for the guidance to be able to do the work that Pope Francis so wishes to have accomplished in the Church.
Fr. David Caron, OP: I think it is again getting our spiritual batteries recharged, but also learning from Pope Francis, how this has evolved in his own heart and in his own mind, his sharing that with us as well. And then sharing best practices: what has worked, what has not worked, what direction we might go in the future. So, it's a wonderful opportunity, but then also to go home from here, and then, what I like to say is that we’re sent home to create ambassadors of mercy. We’re Missionaries of Mercy, but everyone is called to be an ambassador from mercy. Also, going back to your previous question, I’ve also had the privilege of hearing confessions of priests. I was invited to several priest convocations to hear confessions of priests, and they have benefited from this ministry. The Holy Father has allowed us to forgive sins that were reserved to the Vatican. And so, there were some priests who actually came across state lines because I was one of the few in the south of the United States. So, I just wanted to throw that in there because that's also a very important piece to go home with and, as Fr. Bernard was saying, to help our fellow priests to be raised up in this notion of mercy - how they are preaching mercy, how are they enacting mercy in their own ministries, and they can look to us as a resource as well.
Q: Indeed, as Missionaries of Mercy you have special faculties to forgive sins as you mentioned that are reserved to higher Church authority. I imagine that has drawn more interest when people are aware of this.
Fr. Bernard Olszewski: My background is canon law, so my understanding of that portion of it is something of interest to me. There are certain sins which are reserved to the Holy See (for permitting absolution), and there are certain sins which traditionally had been reserved to the bishop of a diocese. The faculty which we have been given is that we need no intermediary, that the Holy Father has conferred upon us that same power of forgiveness which resides in him as Supreme Pontiff. And yes, they are rare occasions, but when it is a question of doubt in particular, it is a miracle to be able to lift that doubt from a person's heart and to give them instantaneously the forgiveness without having to say that if you return in a week's time, I will be able to grant you absolution. And so, part of our encounter this time as well is to delve more deeply into the element of those reserved sins and the ways in which we can be of assistance in the forgiveness of those.
Msgr. Ted Bertagni: Going back to what Fr. Bernard had talked about earlier, this time is like a retreat where we are with other Missionaries of Mercy, all of them priests. I think it’s that shared priesthood that we don't often times get the chance to share, and this is a priesthood that's global, it's universal. So, we really share the universal priesthood by being together with priests from all over the world, and going to confession to each other as well, so sharing the sacrament with one another as well. I think it's part of that whole community building and rebuilding as you had asked before. Covid did terrible things to the Church and the whole world, and so by getting people back into receiving the Eucharist, being able to celebrate the Eucharist together and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Also, part of our ministry is that welcoming, as I mentioned earlier of bringing people together, and us as priests as a fraternal body with one another. Often times when priests get together, that bond of ordained priesthood is very strong. And of course, we share that with the Holy Father who talks to us as brothers. So, it's a sort of a brotherly affirmation of one another which I think is a very strong and uplifting thing that then we can take out from here and share with the rest of the Church when we go home.
Fr. David Caron, OP: Part of the agenda for this gathering is a reflection on the pandemic, which is going to be very interesting. What I found back in my role back in the US in the diocese where I was serving, at the time the Archdiocese of New Orleans, one of things I took on with my role as a Missionary of Mercy, I called every pastor to ask them two questions: one, how are you; and two, what can I be doing to pray for you or doing to support you. And I found that often times people forget the priests are people. Some of the priests were very lonely. Some felt that their only role was to confect sacraments. That's extremely important, but if you feel that is your only role and now you can't celebrate the sacraments, your world becomes very small, you can become very lonely and depressed. So, for the men that were able to see their role not only as the purveyor of sacraments but also to form community, they found creative ways of doing that. I'm hoping that we're going to hear some of that in our conversation these days together to give encouragement to send them out, to go back home to do that when they train others to do the same in creating community.
Q: How has your role as a Missionary of Mercy affected you personally, whether your own faith, or your own ministry? Are there any particular dimensions you would like to talk about that have affected you in a certain way?
Msgr. Ted Bertagni: Some people see this ministry as something to be very proud about, like an accolade, or you are special person. I personally find it more humbling, because I think that in a sense what you do as a Missionary of Mercy is you meet people where they are at when you encounter them, even their lowest moments. Fr. Bernard and Fr. Dave both mentioned that sometimes you encounter people when they are most sad, most down or depressed over their sinfulness or situation in life. So, I find that the whole experience of being a Missionary of Mercy is really more of a humbling one and it grounds and centers us. I personally, in terms of my own prayer life and spirituality, have found that that has helped me to have a better appreciation of where people are coming from. That's what Pope Francis emphasized the first time we were together. He said, take people from where they're at and bring them with you. In other words, take them like the Father takes the Prodigal Son, take him by the hand and welcome him home. So, I just find that that's a beautiful charism. It's a part of being a Missionary of Mercy and that what we can bring to the Church by sharing that charism I think is really one of our strengths.
Fr. Bernard Olszewski: I think for myself, there have been two dimensions and one goes hand-in-hand with the pandemic. When our capacity to go out and preach as we normally do every weekend was suspended, in one sense, I had to redefine what my spiritual life looked like. And I found that focusing on elements of the exhortation that Pope Francis has given to each of us was a wonderful place to start, a very humbling place to start. It allowed me to suspend what I thought I knew about myself and to enter into a place where I felt almost as if I was in the first days of seminary again discovering what the Lord was saying to me and how that direction was going. And for me, that was a wonderful experience of re-energizing my spirituality, which then allowed me to infuse that more deeply into the preaching, which I do every weekend. Looking through the lens of mercy is a little different than simply: let's take a look at the Gospel and what does that impel us to do. Looking at, how does that impel us through the merciful eyes of the Father to live this Gospel passage and to carry out the work that we seek to foster in Matthew 25.
Fr. David Caron, OP: Additionally, I found myself trying to put my time and energy at serving the domestic Church, the family from a distance during the pandemic. And I honestly think the future of the Church needs not only us, but the whole Church creating more resources to do that where people were not coming to church. In the church that I was helping, we actually had more people attending mass in a livestream situation the Sunday after the pandemic then we had in the pews the whole weekend before the pandemic. And so, we begin to analyze that to understand who these people are and where they are coming from, how can we serve them and also equally important, how can we keep them. So, then we started creating resources for the clergy, we had videotaped and live streamed liturgies teaching the priests how to preach to the camera, not only how to celebrate the liturgy as if the people were not there and watching from home, but how to speak to the camera, speak to people at home and speak to their hearts. Also, then how do we encourage moms and dads and single parents to say, look we've given you the faith. Pope Francis says, you don't know enough in totality, but you know enough to get started. So, you do have what's important from your own training, and if you don’t, we’ll help you even from a distance. That's so important and affected me. The other thing as you mentioned as we began our conversation, the polarization in the world, countries, parties, I have found that as a Missionary of Mercy, it caused me to stand in the middle and to try to do my best to get opposing sides to speak to each other. Not that they're going to totally agree, and not to say everything's okay, it’s not relativism, but I think Jesus was a radical centrist. He was able to kind of bring disparate groups together to talk to each other. I find that in my role as a Missionary of Mercy, that's part of what I try to do. And Pope Francis says that to accompany people, that means everybody, not just the ones we agree with.
Q: In talking about mercy, if you were to address a message to the public with this conversation we're having, what would it be when it comes to mercy in your role as a Missionaries of Mercy and how incredibly uplifting it is when you avail yourself of that, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation or through participation at church.
Msgr. Ted Bertagni: I would say that God's love and his mercy are transformative. And so, if they take the opportunity to avail themselves of that love and mercy, that all-encompassing mercy of the Father, that they could be transformed and in a sense being remade, as Jesus asked, all of us to be remade. Through his sacrifice for all of us, that's all part of that whole mystery of his love, the transformative love that takes place on the cross and the resurrection, which is right where we’re at today. I would encourage people to embrace the love, accept that love and that call. Often times, I think people just do not believe or as Fr. Bernard said, they do not believe they are worthy of that forgiveness, or they just don't believe that they can be transformed. As Fr. Dave pointed out, what happens is we find that people - if they avail themselves of this transformative love and mercy - can change their lives and can be themselves instruments of God's mercy. I think Missionaries of Mercy are also there to encourage others to become, in a sense, Missionaries of Mercy in their own lives to demonstrate it, to live it out, to embody it, so that they everybody becomes a beacon to their own families, friends, and communities.
Fr. Bernard Olszewski: I would say we need to learn to first love ourselves. To love ourselves as we are with every hope and expectation that we can become the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be, and that God has called us to be. That I have to be willing to accept my imperfections and realize that God can use those imperfections to be a beacon of light, not just for me, but for others and to lead me into a way that will allow others to see the face of Christ. I think we have to learn to believe in the possibility of miracles, that the transformative love of God can do things beyond any expectation that we as humans can ever have. And that if I am willing and we are willing to let myself rest in the hands of God, then all will be well, and in fact, all is well.
Fr. David Caron, OP: I think that Hollywood and other venues kind of portray mercy is a ‘big old magnanimous me being merciful on little old you’. That's not the mercy of God. Mercy is endless, you know, and it means, again as Fr. Bernard said, loving yourself, but also realizing that mercy takes time. It's messy and it's not easy. It means staying with people when everyone else runs away or moves away because it takes so much time. And to realize also that we only know mercy because we have received it. We know what it feels like to have someone share mercy upon us. So then how do we take that same experience and share it with others. And sadly, we live in a world that wants a mercy for ourselves, but we want justice for others. The two are radical and radically connected, but I think mercy is the first posture, being generous and kind, but knowing that God forgives us first. So, if we can do that and share the mercy of God with others, then we're doing the work of Christ. And then that's holy, that's sacred.