“And I have found that in inviting people back in a personal way, and in even apologizing for the sins and mistakes of my brother priests — it might have been 60 years ago or even longer — seeing people’s heads nod and almost sometimes tears coming out of their eyes, and that is just enough of a bridge that people have found their way back into the confessional.”
Casting the net
At least once a year, Father John Paul will lean back as he’s preaching about the Sacrament of Confession and position his arms as if he is about to throw a large net. He appeals to viewers who have been away from the confessional for two years, five years, or 15 years, rising in steady increments all the way up to 70 years.
“At that point, I’ll almost lean back like I’m getting ready to throw out a net,” he said. “And I’ll look directly at the camera, and I’ll act like I’m throwing the net out.”
Whenever he casts the figurative net, there is always at least one person who responds.
“There was one man who came back. Over 50 years, he had never stepped foot in a church, he told me. He responded to that gesture. He made an appointment with a parish priest to hear his confession.”
“And he went to Mass that Sunday and received Holy Communion after going to Confession, and he told me — and these are his words — ‘I now know what it feels like to be born again.’”
There was a tone of joy and wonder in Father John Paul’s voice as he spoke about helping people return to the Church after years away. He described the relief that they experience “after unburdening, after putting their sins before the Divine Mercy, and having their sins washed clean.”
Many people don’t know, he said, that if they have been away from Confession for a long time, they can ask the priest to guide them through the process.
“You can simply say, ‘Father, it’s been five years, 10 years, 25 years… I’ve tried to examine my conscience, but really I don’t know where to start. Can you help me?’ And any priest when they hear those words would be like ‘Of course I can help you.’”
“A lot of people think that they need to go to Confession all perfectly prepared. Usually, when we go to Confession, we try to make an examination of conscience. We try to have sorrow for our sins. But somebody that’s been away for a time may not know all of those things.”
“As Missionaries of Mercy, a lot of us have tried to be very present and open to the working of the Holy Spirit and what has drawn this person to the Sacrament of Penance, and to help them, to guide them, in their Confession.”
The future of the Missionaries of Mercy
Since 2016, U.S. Missionaries of Mercy have worked together in a way that has earned praise from the Vatican.
“We know that we can accomplish more together as a group and helping each other to understand our mandate and not simply being just lone fish out there in a pond by ourselves,” Father John Paul said.
He expressed hope that the Missionaries of Mercy would play a signficant role in the upcoming National Eucharistic Revival, the U.S. bishops’ three-year initiative to renew belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
“There’s a link between confession and the Eucharist,” Father John Paul said. “So being of service to our bishops, to the dioceses, and helping people understand the link between Confession and a more worthy participation and reception of the Holy Eucharist: I hope that’s our contribution in the United States.”
Father John Paul added that meeting with some of the world’s more than 1,000 Missionaries of Mercy in Rome this spring brought home how varied the ministry is and how each priest lived it in a deeply personal way. He noted that his own ministry had developed in an unexpected direction during the coronavirus crisis.
“During the pandemic, I started in a ministry for adult children of divorce,” he said. “And we know this culture is plagued by divorce and separation in marriage. There are so many of us who are adult children of divorce.”
“My parents divorced when I was 24 years old and first started seminary. So I knew it was something that affected me in my life. And during the pandemic, I came across this ministry called Life-Giving Wounds.”
“I went on their retreat and it really touched my life. It really struck a chord in my own personal life and helped me to address areas in my life that were wounded by my parents’ divorce and separation. And from that experience, I am now a volunteer chaplain for Life-Giving Wounds.”
“That’s just one example in my own life of how I’ve lived out this mission of mercy, this mandate the Holy Father’s given me, is to help be involved in that ministry of Life-Giving Wounds and to help adult children of divorce and separation.”