Dubbed ‘super confessors’, for one year only they can absolve sins usually only pardoned by the pope himself.
And on Wednesday over 1,000 of these “missionaries of mercy”, handpicked by Pope Francis, were sent forth to win back the hearts of those who have left the Catholic Church and open the door to repentant sinners across the world.
There are certain evils the Vatican ranks above other sins, from attempting to assassinate the pope to defiling the Eucharist — the rite of consuming consecrated bread and wine in Church — by spitting it out or using it in a Satanic ritual.
Since the 12th century, those guilty of these so-called “reserved sins” had their cases evaluated by a secret tribunal in the tiny Vatican city state before they were sent before the pope, who would determine an appropriate penance.
Now, 1,142 priests and monks from around the world have be given the power, for the Vatican’s Jubilee Year, to forgive sinners in their flocks — and possibly fellow priests as one of the special sins is breaking the seal of confession.
Maltese Franciscan Marcello Ghirlando, 53, told AFP he thought giving the ‘super confessors’ authority usually reserved for the man in white was “a symbolic gesture” to show people the Church is ready to wipe slates clean.
“I think the pope wants to insist that ‘listen, God is always going to forgive us if we turn to him with a clean heart, with a repentant heart’,” he said with a grin, adding that he was relishing the challenge of bringing people back to church.
Pope Francis has repeatedly warned priests not to turn off potential believers by being boring, inaccessible or overly intrusive, and on Tuesday he told the missionaries they should take a “maternal” approach to sinners.
“Remember, you are not dealing with sin but a repentant sinner, a sinner who wants to change but can’t,” he said, telling them to “cover the sinner with a blanket of mercy, so that he is no longer ashamed and can rediscover joy.”
– ‘Spiritual, social revolution’ –
Some of the super confessors are already thinking outside the box. One missionary is off to the Canadian Arctic to hear Eskimo confessions, another will tour Australia in a camper, whilst others are packing their bags for Burundi, China and Lebanon.
Vatican watcher John L. Allen, writing for the Cruxnow website, said the pontiff was hoping the missionaries would carry with them his messages on key social issues, from tackling climate change to opening doors to refugees.
“As the ‘Pope of Mercy’ sees it, this jubilee year isn’t just a series of celebrations and events intended to foster deeper piety, however desirable that may be. The far more audacious aim is to launch a revolution — spiritual at its core, but with imminent social and even political consequences,” he said.
American priest Joseph Hlubik, 62, who was meeting up with the other missionaries ahead of talks with the pope, said he hoped that those who have left the Church in recent years “see this as an opportunity to come back”.
“People who thought they were outside of the grace of God for one reason or another. Let them find us approachable and understanding,” he said, holding his wide-brimmed black hat on in the wind.
Priest Mana Thembalethu from South Africa, 39, said the confessors would be forgiving those who take part in abortions — but warned “we’re not saying abortion is cool, everybody must do it. It still remains a sin”.
And 49-year-old Xavier Lefebvre, a Paris-based priest, shrugged off the label “super confessor”, saying anyone who takes confession should be super, or they are not doing their job right — a sentiment shared by Francis.
“Let those who do not feel up to it have the humility to say: ‘No, I’ll celebrate Mass, I’ll clean the floor, I’ll do everything but not confess, because I do not know how to do it well’,” the pope said.