Vatican City, 10 February 2016 (VIS) – Showing the maternal face of the Church, being aware of the need for forgiveness and the sense of shame of those who confess, and not applying a harsh form of justice were the main features of the advice Pope Francis gave yesterday afternoon to the Missionaries of Mercy from all continents, whom he received in audience in the Sala Regia of the Vatican Apostolic Palace. Today, during the Ash Wednesday Mass, he will confer to them their mandate as "missionaries" of mercy in the context of the Jubilee.
"I meet with you with great pleasure, before giving you the mandate of being Missionaries of Mercy. This is a sign of special relevance because it characterises the Jubilee, and enables the unfathomable mystery of the mercy of the Father to be lived in all the local Churches", said the Holy Father. "Being a missionary of mercy is a responsibility I have entrusted to you because it requires that you be witnesses in the first person of God's closeness and his way of loving. It is not our way, always limited and at times contradictory, but His way of loving, His way of forgiving, that is indeed mercy".
Francis went on to remind the new missionaries that in their ministry they are called upon to express the maternity of the Church. "The Church is a mother because she always generates new sons and daughters in faith; the Church is a mother also because she nurtures faith; and the Church is a mother also because she offers God's forgiveness, regenerating new life, the fruit of conversion. We cannot run the risk that a penitent does not perceive the maternal presence of the Church who welcomes and loves him. If this perception were to be made less evident as a result of our rigidity, it would constitute a grave damage first and foremost to faith itself, as it would prevent the penitent from seeing himself as integrated within the Body of Christ. Furthermore, it would greatly limit his sense of being part of a community. We are instead called upon to be a living expression of the Church who, as a mother, welcomes anyone who approaches her, knowing that through her they are integrated with Christ. Entering into the confessional let us always remember that it is Christ Who welcomes, Christ Who listens, Christ Who forgives, and Christ Who gives peace. We are His ministers, and we are the first who are in need of His forgiveness. Therefore, whatever may be the sin to be confessed – or that the person does not dare to say, but alludes to, which is enough – each missionary is called upon to remember their own existence as a sinner and to humbly place himself as a 'channel' of God's mercy".
Another important aspect is to know how to "look at the desire for forgiveness in the penitent's heart. It is the fruit of grace and its action in the life of people, which enables us to feel nostalgia for God, for His love and His home. Let us not forget that it is precisely this desire that is at the beginning of conversion. The heart turns to God, recognising the in committed, but with the hope of obtaining forgiveness. And this desire is strengthened when one decides in one's heart to change life and to sin no more. It is the moment at which one entrusts oneself to God's mercy, trusting fully in being understood, forgiven and supported by Him. Let us allow ample space to this desire for God and for His forgiveness; may we let it emerge as a true expression of the grace of the Spirit that inspires the conversion of the heart".
Finally, the Holy Father spoke about a crucial, often neglected aspect: shame. "It is not easy to place oneself in front of another man, knowing that he represents God, and confess to sin. One is ashamed not only of the sin committed, but also of having to confess it to another", said the Pope, emphasising that the Bible from its very first pages tells us about how Adam and Eve, after they had sinned, felt shame and hid themselves from God. Noah too, considered a righteous man, was not free from sin. His intemperance is a sign of his weakness, to the extent that he loses his dignity, expressed in the Scripture by his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth take his cloak and cover him to restore his dignity.
"This passage suggests to me the importance of our role as confessor", said Francis. "Before us there is a 'naked' person, and also a person who does not know how to speak and does not know what to say … with the shame of being a sinner, and very often unable to say so. Let us not forget: before us there is not the sin, but the repentant sinner. … A person who wishes to be accepted and forgiven. Therefore, we are not called upon to judge, with an attitude of superiority, as if we were immune to sin. On the contrary, we are called upon to act like Shem and Japheth, who took a cover to spare their father from shame. Being a confessor in accordance with Christ's heart means covering the sinner with a cloak of mercy, so that he is no longer ashamed and is able to recover the joy of his filial dignity, and may also know where to find it".
"However, it is not the club of judgement that we succeed in returning the lost sheep to the flock, but rather with the holiness of life that is the starting point of renewal and reform in the Church. Holiness is nurtured with love and knows how to bear the burden of the weak. A missionary of mercy carries the sinner on his shoulders, and consoles him with the power of compassion. … It is possible to do great damage, great damage to a soul if one does not listen with the heart of a father, with the heart of the Mother Church". "Some months ago I spoke with a wise cardinal of the Roman Curia about the questions that some priests ask in confession, and he said to me, 'When a person starts and I see that they want to say something, and I realise and understand, I say, I understand, don't worry. … This is a father".
"I accompany you on this missionary adventure", concluded the bishop of Rome, "offering you as examples two saints, ministers of God's forgiveness: St. Leopold and St. Pio … along with many other priests who during their life have borne witness to God's mercy. They will help you. When you feel the burden of the sins confessed to you, and the limits of your person and your words, trust in the power of mercy that reaches out to everyone as love and knows no bounds. And say, like many saintly confessors, 'Lord, I forgive you', and go ahead".