‘Priests are Missionaries of Mercy’
“I know that many of you have reached out lovingly to many families who experienced tragic, sudden or violent death in their homes. Just last night when I visited the family home in Derry of those who lost their lives at Buncrana pier on Sunday, I could see first hand the merciful outreach of the local priest and community at a time of unspeakable pain and loss. No doubt in Brussels today priests and pastoral workers are holding the hands of the injured, whispering comfort to the bereaved, lifting up the sorrowful.” – Archbishop Eamon
I love the story about the priest who saw a little girl walking along the road carrying a little boy in her arms. She was clearly struggling to manage because the boy was nearly as big as she was, so the priest advised her to put him down as he seemed much too heavy for her to carry. ‘But Father’, she replied, ‘he ain’t heavy; he’s my brother’! Some people here will remember the Hollies hit song by that title.
I couldn’t help thinking of those words when I first saw the logo for the Year of Mercy by Father Marko Rupnik. It shows Jesus carrying on his shoulders a man as big as himself – it’s clearly a reminder of the Good Shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep, and then, when he finds it, puts it on his shoulders and carries it home. The logo therefore represents Christ going in search of the sinner, the lost soul, and finding him he lifts him up onto his shoulders and carries him back to the Father. The figure of Jesus in the logo is shown as if on the cross, his hands and his feet are pierced through – the Suffering Servant. It brings to mind the words of Isaiah chapter 53
“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;…
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;…
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;…
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all”.
Pope Francis describes the Year of Mercy as ‘an extraordinary moment of grace’, an invitation to each one of us to recognise our sinfulness before God, and to turn back. Thank God already during this Jubilee Year many people have returned to God and to the Church, allowing Jesus to lift them onto his shoulders and carry them back to the Father. We have good reason, as the great Hallel psalm puts it, to: “Give thanks to God for his mercy endures for ever”.
They say that was the hymn which Jesus sang with his disciples on the Mount of Olives before his Passion; similar words will burst forth at the Alleluia during the Easter Vigil when we sing: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy has no end!’
Mercy is the beginning and the end of the story of salvation. And as Pope Francis reminded us in his papal letter to launch the Year of Mercy:
‘Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”(MV10)’.
Since mercy is at the heart of revelation and is the foundation of the Church’s life, it is obvious, my brother priests, that mercy ought to be at the heart of everything we are and do as priests. I know that the Holy Father appointed particular priests as ‘missionaries of mercy’ for the Jubilee Year, but each of us here knows that as priests we are all called at ordination to be instruments of God’s mercy.
The preface at this Chrism Mass about the ministry of priests puts it beautifully:
We are chosen ‘to become sharers in his sacred ministry through the laying on of hands’; to lead God’s holy people in charity, to nourish them with the word and strengthen them with the Sacraments’.
All of this is the work of mercy.
In this way we give up our lives for God ‘and for the salvation of our brothers and sisters’
The preface goes on to say that in our priesthood we ‘strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself’.
So since Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy, and we are called to be conformed to the image of Christ, then we, as priests are called to be, like Christ, the Face of mercy to the world.
What a wonderful calling! What a challenge, particularly in a world which at times seems everything but merciful. Popular culture tells our young people they must be strong, powerful, popular, wealthy, self-reliant, healthy, fit, trendy and attractive; it persuades them to focus so much on themselves and their personal interest.
But life often deals them a very different hand. They have to find their way in a world filled with terrorism, aggression, war and torture, abuse, domestic violence, addiction, poverty, homelessness and austerity; they will have to cope as often with failure and disappointment as with success and achievement.
The Latin word for ‘mercy’ (misericordia) derives from two words: one, miseriae for misery; the other, cor or cordis for heart. Mercy, then, is what happens when a heart of love meets the misery or pitiful state of others and the world.
Father George Kosicki, CSB, summed up the meaning of the Latin word misericordia as “having a pain in your heart for the pains of others, and taking pains to do something about their pain.” To do just that is our privilege and calling as priests. I want to thank you today for the difference you make in the lives of so many people across this Archdiocese, being there of course to share their days of happiness and joy, but especially walking with them and helping them carry the pain of bereavement, disappointment, illness, failure and relationship breakdown.
I know that many of you have reached out lovingly to many families who experienced tragic, sudden or violent death in their homes. Just last night when I visited the family home in Derry of those who lost their lives at Buncrana pier on Sunday, I could see first hand the merciful outreach of the local priest and community at a time of unspeakable pain and loss. No doubt in Brussels today priests and pastoral workers are holding the hands of the injured, whispering comfort to the bereaved, lifting up the sorrowful.
This is the work of mercy that is at the heart of our calling as priests.
And there are no more humbling yet precious words for us as priests than to hear someone say: “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it’s been a long, long time since my last Confession, but I want to come back to God”.
My dear people during this Chrism Mass you will be asked to ‘pray for your priests and bishops, that the Lord may pour out his gifts abundantly upon us and keep us faithful as ministers of Christ, the High Priest’. Today, as we renew our priestly commitment, pray that we will be true missionaries of mercy. May we be merciful towards you, our people, especially the wounded, the marginalised, the lost souls, the sinners who may feel far away from God and from the Church. May we be merciful towards our fellow priests, caring especially for those who may be struggling with their vocation for one reason or another, never indulging in gossip or slander; and may we be merciful towards ourselves, not expecting too much of ourselves or trying to go it alone without the support of others or without Christ’s helping hand.
Sometimes we too need to know that Christ is there for us as priests, seeking us out, leaning down to us in our weakness and saying, ‘come on, get up on my shoulders, you ain’t heavy, you’re my brother’.
- + Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
- The Chrism Mass was celebrated in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh at 11.00am this Holy Thursday morning.
- The Chrism Mass is held during Holy Week in every Catholic diocese. During this Mass, the priests, deacons and representatives of the entire diocesan community gather around their bishop, who blesses the Holy Oils for use in the coming year. These are: Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens, and Sacred Chrism. Whenever the Holy Oils are used in a diocese, the ministry of the Bishop who consecrated them is symbolically present. The Chrism Mass reminds us of our oneness in Christ through Baptism and its holy anointing, made possible by the ministry of the bishop and his priests. The Chrism Mass is also a key moment in which the unity of the Bishop with his priests (together, they form the presbyterate) is manifested and renewed. During the liturgy, the entire assembly is called to renew its baptismal promises; deacons and priests also renew their vow of obedience to the local bishop and their commitment to serve God’s people. At the end of the Chrism Mass, the Holy Oils are brought back to parishes of the diocese for use in the coming year.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444