By Tanya Connor and William T. Clew
The Catholic Free Press
Three “missionaries of mercy” designated by Pope Francis lived in the Diocese of Worcester during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, but did some of their work outside the country.
As “missionaries of mercy,” Assumptionist Father Dinh Vo Tran, and pastors Father Peter J. Joyce and Father C. Michael Broderick were available to hear confessions, give retreats and lead pilgrimages and prayer services. At the beginning of Lent, during a visit to the Vatican, they received a special mandate from Pope Francis to preach and teach about God’s mercy. The three priests were among about 1,100 “missionaries of mercy” from around the world commissioned by the Pope.
Now that the Year of Mercy has ended they reflect on the past year and look forward to continuing their mission as Pope Francis has asked then to do.
GIFTS OF MERCY
Father Vo Tran said he received his biggest gift as a “missionary of mercy” as the Year of Mercy closed. He was called to Maine to baptize a man he had met while leading a pilgrimage to Canada.
Father Joyce, pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Southbridge and spiritual adviser to Juan XXIII, an international evangelization movement, was able to talk about his encounter with Pope Francis at a conference in Colombia.
Father Broderick, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Rutland, spoke at retreats at several designated pilgrim sites in the diocese and led the children of his parish in acting out the corporal works of mercy.
Father Vo Tran said he sought to help people with their spiritual lives in various ways. One was by leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Door at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Quebec City.
Pilgrimages, he explained, help people gain a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of the Catholic Church and make them more aware that it is bigger than just their local community. Pilgrimages also bring about conversions. The one to Canada in May demonstrated this.
Among pilgrims on that trip was a man from Portland, Maine, and his wife and children, Father Vo Tran said. The woman was Catholic. Having made the pilgrimage, the man decided he wanted to be baptized. He received preparation for the sacraments in Maine and Father Vo Tran was invited to give him the sacraments of initiation – baptism, confirmation and first Communion – on Nov. 20, the day the Holy Year closed.
“For me that was the biggest gift of mercy God gave me” as a missionary of mercy, Father Vo Tran said.
Another gift was hearing confessions. The Pope said he wanted “missionaries of mercy” to be gentle confessors.
“This experience helped me to recognize the holiness in God’s people is great,” Father Vo Tran said. Sometimes, he noted, he saw that they are holier than he is.
Father Joyce spoke about being a missionary of mercy at the fifth International Congress of the Juan XXIII movement, held in June in Bogota, Colombia. He said he shared with the members of the movement the powerful talk Pope Francis gave priests whom he commissioned “missionaries of mercy.” The night before Ash Wednesday the pope told them he expected them to promote the healing power of confession and be a visible face of God’s mercy.
Father Broderick recalled that the Pope’s message to them was to be welcoming to sinners. He said the Pope told them “you’re a sinner and I am, too, so you can’t yell at sinners.”
“We can’t judge sinners because we are sinners,” Father Broderick said. “We should walk with the person, not in front of him, not behind him, but with him.”
“I really tried to make myself available” for confessions during the Year of Mercy, Father Joyce said. Some people sought him out to hear their confession and one priest contacted him to hear someone’s confession because of the special faculties given to “missionaries of mercy,” he said.
But he said there was not a lot of demand for “missionaries of mercy” in the Worcester Diocese. He was invited to speak at one parish – Mary, Queen of the Rosary in Spencer, a pilgrimage church.
Father Broderick also spoke during a retreat at the Spencer parish and to a group of Venerini Associates who visited his parish.
He called the past year a “humbling experience.”
WORKS OF MERCY
At St. Patrick’s the youngsters in religious education classes implemented corporal works of mercy in what was called the Mercy Challenge. Each week they put a specific work of mercy into action, under the guidance of Christine Mulry and Jean Urbanowski, parish administrators of religious education.
“They did the work, I supervised,” Father Broderick said with a laugh.
It was a learning experience for the youngsters and the whole parish. For the first work of mercy, “Feed the hungry,” the youngsters gathered more than 500 pounds of products for the food pantry, he said. To illustrate “Give Drink to the Thirsty” they gathered 101.65 gallons of water and juice for the pantry. To “Shelter the Homeless” they collected hats and scarves for homeless shelters. For “Visit the Sick” they made 293 get-well cards for shut-ins. They collected 305 toiletries and other gifts to send to Dismas House, which helps former prisoners prepare to re-enter society, to “Visit the Prisoners.” For “Bury the Dead” they gathered about 600 names of deceased relatives and friends and made them part of a prayer chain that was displayed to the parish center. And they collected $500 to “Give Alms to the Poor” which was added to the parish donation to Notre Dame de la Mar, the parish in Haiti with which St. Patrick’s is twinned.
Pope Francis has asked the missionaries of mercy to continue offering to hear confessions and leading retreats, missions and prayer services in dioceses around the world.
Asked about that, Father Vo Tran said mercy is needed and the mission of mercy must continue, even though the Year of Mercy has closed. Father Vo Tran, who has been director of St. Anne Shrine in Sturbridge, was leaving for a new assignment with the Assumptionist novitiate in the Philippines. His work as a missionary of mercy will continue there.
Father Joyce said his role now, since the closing of the Year of Mercy, will be the same as it has been: dependent on the invitations of others who seek his services.
Of the Year of Mercy in general Father Joyce said, “I think it was an amazing experience.” He said it was moving to meet people who drove a distance to come to his parish’s Notre Dame Church, itself a pilgrimage site. They came from around Massachusetts and some came from out of state, he said.
He said he thought some people returned to the Church because of the Year of Mercy, though not in the numbers “we would have liked.” People were touched by Pope Francis; they saw his effort to make the Church more open and welcoming, he said.
Father Joyce said he thought the Year of Mercy challenged people to intentionally try to be more merciful.
The year saw one of the most virulent presidential campaigns, he said, and asked how much worse it would have been “if it weren’t a Year of Mercy,” when people were especially praying for God’s mercy.
“We believe that when we pray and practice mercy, God floods the world with his grace,” he said.
As for followup to the Year of Mercy, Father Joyce spoke of continuing to encourage people to embrace and practice mercy and to go to confession.