When he announced the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis also asked bishops and religious superiors to nominate
priests whom he could commission as “missionaries of mercy” –priests who are good confessors, good preachers of the message of mercy who could travel the globe proclaiming the mercies of the Lord.
This week we celebrate the feast day of one such missionary of mercy, namely, the great St. Patrick. The story of St. Patrick is well known but its outline bears repeating, especially in the context of this Year of Mercy. St. Patrick lived between 386 and 461. He was born Britain but was captured by pirates and brought to Ireland. During his time of enslavement, he was converted to Christianity. After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped but did not remain in his native land. Instead, he returned to Ireland as a missionary, bringing to that country the message of mercy, salvation in Jesus Christ. By all accounts, St. Patrick was extraordinarily successful winning over the Emerald Isle for Christ and for the Church.
St. Patrick, however, was not the original missionary of mercy. Jesus Christ, Eternal Son of God the Father, was sent into the world to reveal the face of the Father of Mercies, to save us from our sins, to heal the wounds of sin and division, and to unite us in goodness, truth, and love. The scriptures describe and celebrate the mighty power of God, a God who opened a pathway through the sea for the chosen people, a God who defeated the Egyptians so that his people could escape into the desert. Now, however, in Jesus, we see the real intent of God’s mighty power. As Pope Francis has said, God’s mercy is the mark par excellence of his omnipotence. His mighty power is revealed in the mercy and forgiveness he extends to us. Jesus is the original and ultimate missionary of mercy!
Sometimes when we speak of God’s mercy, we imagine that in forgiving us the Lord is quietly condoning our sins, telling us that they are not as bad as we thought. But God’s mercy is not a “get out of jail free card” from our old Monopoly game; that really sells short how marvelous God’s mercy really is. When we welcome God’s mercy, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we allow God’s mighty power to enter our hearts not only to cleanse us of our sins but to strengthen us to sin no more, to lay aside those sins that bring so much unhappiness to ourselves and others, that cause us to lead a double life to one degree or another –those sins that make it difficult for us to live with ourselves and with our consciences.
I should imagine that St. Patrick’s conversion followed the pattern that St. Paul outlines for us. That conversion is not a matter of trading in one set of rules for another. No, St. Paul says, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . .” When we fall in love with Christ in an absolute way, those hurt feelings we hold on to, the anger and resentment we harbor, those sinful habits we cling to as closely guarded secrets –those possessions and comforts we don’t think we can live without –all that becomes worthless and we’re willing to leave it behind. When the priest pronounces the words of absolution in confession, we hear Jesus inviting us – “Go and sin no more –and we hear St. Paul saying to us, “You can leave these sins behind –so long as you open your heart through faith in Christ to the power of the Cross and the power of the Resurrection over sin and death.” It’s not a matter of our earning our righteousness by following the rules but rather of our allowing Christ to come and take possession of our hearts, allowing ourselves to be loved as we have never before been loved –such that we forget what lies behind and we press on to what lies ahead –namely, life in Christ Jesus beginning now but consummated fully in heaven.
That is why Patrick went to Ireland. That is why Pope Francis sent out missionaries of mercy. That is why we celebrate the Holy Mass and participate in the Sacraments–in the hope of finding that mercy which surpasses everything we’ve ever known.