Editor’s note: On Ash Wednesday 2016, the author was in Rome to receive Pope Francis’ commission as a Missionary of Mercy. We asked him to tell us what that means.
Sometime last fall I read the Holy Father’s letter, Misericordiae Vultus, which the Vatican released on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2015. In this Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy that started in December.
I loved the letter. Its message spoke deeply and powerfully to my heart and spirit.
In paragraph 18 of the letter, Pope Francis wrote: “During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. 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.
“Everyone, in fact, without exception, is called to embrace the call to mercy.”
I was so moved by his words that I said to myself, “I want to be a Missionary of Mercy. I have received a lifetime of mercy from God. I want to spread that mercy.”
I did not know how one went about becoming a Missionary of Mercy. So I sent an email to my provincial superior and another to our local bishop, whose approval and support I would need for this to work. Eventually I got a name and an email address. I wrote and expressed my interest. After three weeks I gave up hoping for a response.
Then, just before Christmas, I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, working on a project for the Alliance for Catholic Education — Notre Dame’s ACE program. One morning I woke up to an email from an Italian name I did not recognize. I assumed it was from a long-lost relative who’d had their passport and purse stolen in Naples and needed $5,000 and would I wire it to them. I was just about to delete the email. And then I read,
- Being Mercy
- He Can’t Take His Eyes Off Us
- I Don’t Always Say Thank You
- The Parable of the Merciful Father
- Reflections on a Trip to the Holy Land, Part 1
- Reflections on a Trip to the Holy Land, Part 2
- Hearing the Confessions of the Confessors
- Getting It Right
“Dear Reverend Father, Please find attached to this e-mail a PDF copy of the letter addressed to your kind attention, dated December 18, 2015, from Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.”
I opened the attachment from Archbishop Fisichella and I read:
“Dear Father Corpora, I have the great pleasure of informing you that your name, which has been presented to the Holy Father as a candidate for the service as a Missionary of Mercy, has been gladly accepted by him.”
I was overcome with excitement and joy and gratitude. I couldn’t believe it. I quickly sent an email to Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese to share the news with him. He was quite surprised. I think he, too, had given up thinking I would get an email. How this happened is truly a mystery, given that I’d made my inquiry after the deadline and that there’d been no contact between Rome and Bishop Rhoades. God is always working.
As February 6 approached, the day I would leave for Rome to receive the mandate as a missionary, I became more and more excited. Though I was not sure what it would mean, I knew I wanted others to accept the relentless mercy of God that had pervaded my life. I returned often to the letter from Archbishop Fisichella, who wrote, “It is the fervent desire of the Holy Father that the Missionaries of Mercy be priests distinguished for their patience, welcoming confessors who are aware of the limits of our humanity and willing to serve as living signs of how the Father embraces all those who seek His forgiveness.”
At age 61, I could write a book about the “limits of our humanity,” especially mine. I will die a sinner.
In 2001 I made a retreat at the Trappist Abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky. I met Father Matthew Kelty, OCSO, who has since died. I remember him saying, “I’m Matthew Kelty. I am a sinner whose sins are forgiven.” That totally spoke to me. And since then it is my deepest self-definition: I am a sinner whose sins are forgiven. And because I have been forgiven often and repeatedly, I have learned a lot about mercy.
The trip to Rome
I arrived in Rome on February 7, a Sunday. Safe and easy, but a long flight from Atlanta. By 10 a.m., I was at the Hotel Columbus, less than 100 yards from the Vatican. Totally great location. After washing up I went to St. Peter’s for the noon Angelus.
Like clockwork, the famous window opened and Pope Francis appeared in the window while thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square cheered and clapped, waved flags and held up banners. The Holy Father greeted everyone, gave a brief homily on the gospel, then prayed the Angelus, gave the apostolic blessing and recognized a few groups.
What is it about seeing the pope that draws so many people to St. Peter’s for 12 minutes? There is no doubt this pope draws even more people than others. I love him.
He asked us not to be curious, not to be inquisitive, and not to ask questions that don’t help the penitent. He asked us to understand the language of gestures. He said, “You know when someone just can’t say it . . . let them be. Their trying is enough. Their being there is enough.
After the Angelus, I went to a parish for Mass. It was so crowded that I couldn’t get a seat. So I decided to concelebrate, which always gives a great seat. :)
The priest couldn’t say Mass fast enough. :(
After the gospel, which was in Italian, of course, another concelebrant proclaimed it in Polish. Pope John Paul II declared this church a shrine of Divine Mercy, a devotion made famous by the Polish nun, St. Faustina, and a large group of Polish pilgrims was there. I distributed communion, which is always a grace and a privilege. I love watching people come for communion. After Mass I prayed in front of the relics of St. Pope John Paul II and St. Faustina.
Then I went back to the hotel and, after a 20-minute nap that turned out to be four hours, I walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. At one point I was certain I had died and gone to heaven. Then I realized I was just eating gnocchi in a Bolognese sauce with Italian bread. Totally delicious.
When I went to bed that night I reflected on two things:
1. I will live and die as a Catholic. I love, love, love the Church and I am so grateful for the faith that God has given to me.
Even with all its faults and failings and sins and errors, I love the Church. It is in the Church that I find Jesus Christ, the one who has saved me, who has poured out his mercy on me, the one who is everything to me. I find Jesus alive in the Church, in the sacraments of the Church, in the people who make up the Church, in Pope Francis. I will live and die as a Catholic. I am so grateful for this faith.
2. I will always be fat.
If carbohydrates are my downfall, let me fall! Italy is filled with bread and pasta. The crust on the bread is totally delicious. I could just eat the crust. And the pasta is great. I can’t get enough of either. When I went to bed each night, I could hardly wait for the morning so that I could have more bread. And that crust. . . . I will always be fat.
. . . was the day scheduled for the Holy Father to speak to the Missionaries of Mercy. I am told 700 missionaries traveled to be sent forth by the Holy Father. We assembled about a quarter-mile walk from St. Peter’s and were divided to seven language groups — Italian, English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Polish. We walked together in pilgrimage singing and praying psalms. It was beautiful.
As we entered the Holy Door, I kissed it and begged to be open to God’s mercy so I could extend it to others. We walked by the Tomb of St. Peter as well as the relics of St. Pio of Pietrelcina — “Padre Pio” — and St. Leopold Mandic. These two saints were renowned for being good and gentle confessors. They drew thousands and thousands of pilgrims. It was very moving to see the bodies of these two holy men.
After going through the Basilica, we walked for what seemed like an hour to the Sala Regia in the Apostolic Palace. Once there we climbed about 500 steps — give or take one! At 5:30 p.m. the Holy Father arrived, though actually seeing him was preceded by lots of clapping as he was walking in. I was very close to him. His presence is powerful. I kept thinking, This is the pope. I am so blessed and fortunate to be here. He looks so Italian. He talks with his hands.
So I decided that one of the things that I would give up for Lent is saying “I’m tired,” even if I am. The pope must be tired. He’s 79 and has one lung. Yet he never says, “I’m tired.” I thought, if we really give ourselves over to the service of God and of the Kingdom, we should be tired.
He spoke in Italian. I had the choice of listening to him in Italian and understanding about 80 percent of what he said, or of listening to an English translation with headphones. I chose Italian. Part of the reason is that I love his voice. He has a beautiful and easy and soothing voice.
He implored us to be gentle, to be kind, to be loving, to show the maternal face of the Church to penitents. He used this phrase a lot: “The Church is Mother because She nourishes the faith; and the Church is Mother because She offers God’s forgiveness, regenerating a new life, the fruit of conversion.” He asked us to reflect on our own sinfulness and our own need for forgiveness, and to extend that to all who come into the confessional.
The Holy Father said, “We are his ministers; and we are always the first to be in need of being forgiven by Him.”
He asked us not to be curious, not to be inquisitive, and not to ask questions that don’t help the penitent. He asked us to understand the language of gestures. He said, “You know when someone just can’t say it . . . let them be. Their trying is enough. Their being there is enough. Use the language of gesture.”
Each time he said this, he would shrug his shoulders and use gestures. He reminded us that when people come to confession they are feeling shame. And our role should be to say to them, with word and gesture, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” This is how a real father treats his children. He kept insisting that the role of the confessor was to restore people to their dignity and begged us not to do anything that works against that.
He referred, as he often has in his writings and speeches, to a time he went to confession as a teenage boy. “I have no idea what the priest told me. All I can remember is that the priest smiled, and I felt so forgiven. This is what a father does. He encourages. He helps.” He said, “If you can’t smile, if you can’t use the language of gestures, if you can’t offer mercy and forgiveness, then don’t hear confessions. Go and do something else.”
At the end of his talk, he gave us the Apostolic Blessing. Then he walked toward us. I was in the second row and I saw him coming toward us. I couldn’t believe it. And before I knew it, he was stretching out his hands into the crowd. I took his left hand, kissed it, put my cheek on it, and all I could say was, “Santo Padre . . . Santo Padre . . . Santo Padre.” Holy Father.
I had a few words prepared to say to him in Spanish. And I was going to give him a pair of those great Guadalupe socks for his trip to Mexico. But when I touched his hands, I couldn’t say anything except to repeat “Santo Padre.” His hands are very soft. I didn’t want to let go of his hands. This is a moment that I will forever cherish. It made me think of what it will be like when we meet God. No words will be necessary. Just being in his presence will be enough.
Well, I say that I will never forget that moment, but that night I kept asking myself, “Did that really happen?” I will be forever grateful. When the Holy Father walked out of the room, we all sang the Salve Regina. Now, I am no fan of Latin. But 700 priests from every corner of the globe singing together was powerful and beautiful. It’s the only thing I know in Latin. And I was so glad to sing with all the other priests.
On Ash Wednesday morning I went to the General Audience at the Vatican. The pope looked and sounded tired. I wondered how he would have the strength for a very busy visit to Mexico, which was to start in two days. So I decided that one of the things that I would give up for Lent is saying “I’m tired,” even if I am. The pope must be tired. He’s 79 and has one lung. Yet he never says, “I’m tired.” I thought, if we really give ourselves over to the service of God and of the Kingdom, we should be tired. Imagine giving yourself over to God and the People of God and then saying, “I feel rested.” No. We should be tired. But I’m going to try all during Lent not to say it!
After the Audience I went to the offices of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. I had learned that you can check out all the photographs from the previous day. So I found the pictures of me kissing the hand of the Holy Father. I am so grateful to have this picture. For one thing, I know that it actually happened.
Ash Wednesday Mass with the Holy Father was at 5 p.m. We had to arrive at 3. We vested and waited and talked and visited. I was struck by the commonalities of priests — all of us with our own versions of sin and grace across many cultures and languages trying to love God and be faithful priests. I was very happy to be with the other Missionaries of Mercy.
We all processed into the Basilica around 4:30. It was a beautiful liturgy. The first reading was in English, the second reading was in Spanish and the gospel was in Italian. Most of the Mass was in Italian, though some was in Latin. I felt privileged to be concelebrating Mass at St. Peter’s where millions of people from every corner of the world have come to pray for hundreds of years. I was so moved when one of the cardinals put ashes on the head of Pope Francis. The pope constantly reminds us that he, too, is a sinner. Still, seeing this moved me deeply.
I was also struck by how smart phones have united the world. The priest on my left was from Prague. As the readings were being proclaimed he was reading them in Czech on his iPhone. I saw priests from Poland and Germany doing the same thing. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. We all have them.
After communion, the pope prayed a beautiful prayer sending us out to be the maternal face of the Church to all who come seeking the mercy of God. I will treasure the moment of being sent forth by the Holy Father. At the end of every talk and presentation by the Holy Father he says, “Non dimenticare di pregare per me.” Don’t forget to pray for me. He’s very serious about that and such a great role model about asking for prayer.
In the talk that the Holy Father gave to the Missionaries of Mercy on February 9, he stressed that he wants us to go wherever we are asked — to preach about mercy, to welcome people to the confessional, that they might have an experience of the mercy of God.
I don’t think I will hear many confessions of those sins that are so grave that until now they have been reserved to the Holy See to forgive. Nor is that the Holy Father’s main intent in sending us forth. Rather, it is that everyone might experience the mercy of God, that we all might open ourselves to his mercy, and in a particular way that it would be through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Now that I am home, back at Notre Dame, my plate is filling up. I’m leading and preaching penance services at parishes in our diocese. I have received many requests to talk about mercy to parishes, to the spouses of the Board of Trustees, to the students on the LGBTQ retreat and the All-Class Latino retreat, to the Alumni Association. The requests keep coming in. I am trying to say yes to all of them because I feel a special call to do whatever I can to spread the mercy of God.
Please pray for me that God might use me to be the face of mercy to all who come seeking his forgiveness.
Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage Campaign within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program.