When the Vatican first invited priests to become Missionaries of Mercy in 2015, Father John Paul Mary Zeller, MFVA, felt a clear prompting from God.
“It was almost like a tap on the shoulder,” he said in a mid-May phone interview with CNA. “We call it a ‘signal grace,’ an actual grace, where I felt an invitation from the Lord. And immediately I just said: ‘I have to pursue this.’”
Seven years later, Father John Paul explained that being a Missionary of Mercy was not simply one more role shoehorned into his already busy life as employee chaplain of EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network.
“Being a Missionary of Mercy has become not just something that is added, but it has become the prism or the locus, almost the embodiment, the way in which I’ve lived my priesthood,” he said.
The origins of the Missionaries of Mercy
Pope Francis established the Missionaries of Mercy in the 2015 papal bullMisericordiae vultus, proclaiming the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which ended in November 2016.
The pope said that he wanted to send out Missionaries of Mercy as “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon.”
Many thought that the initiative would end with the Jubilee Year. But the pope extended the Missionaries of Mercy’s mandate. And when he met with the priests this spring, he expressed delight at their continued growth.
He also highlighted a significant new development: the Missionaries of Mercy are enshrined in the new Vatican constitution, Praedicate evangelium, released in March.
“I wanted to put you there, in the apostolic constitution, because you are a privileged instrument in the Church today, and you are not a movement that exists today and will not exist tomorrow, no, you are in the structure of the Church,” the pope said.
It wasn’t entirely clear at first how the Missionaries of Mercy would fulfill their mission.
But it was soon established that their main tasks would be preaching God’s mercy and administering it in the confessional. They were also given the faculties to pardon certain sins in cases otherwise reserved to the Holy See.
Speaking during a month-long visit to Rome, he said: “My religious name is John Paul Mary of Divine Mercy. And I think the theme of mercy has been all throughout my life, and God’s generosity and God’s embrace.”
“In my own life, I’ve experienced the embrace of God, the forgiveness of God, and that has been such an important part of my life. And my vocation to the priesthood is being close to God’s people.”
“And that’s something that Pope Francis has emphasized a lot, the word ‘closeness,’ the closeness of God. And whenever I hear him say that, it really strikes a chord in me because God is close.”
“So many people in our world and in our culture have become so isolated. And they don’t sense and don’t experience God as close. They think that God is so far off and somehow looking at us from a distance, as the old Bette Midler song goes. I think that song is not true at all.”
Pope Francis formally commissioned the Missionaries of Mercy during a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Ash Wednesday 2016. Father John Paul said that processing into the basilica with other priests chosen for the mission was daunting.
“It was a little overwhelming just because I think none of us really truly understood what this would do to us or what this might mean for our lives,” the Pennsylvania-born priest recalled.
An extraordinary Jubilee Year
The Jubilee Year proved to be “an incredible experience,” with Father John Paul spending more time than ever before in the confessional.
“During the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we had a Jubilee Year door up in Hanceville. And a lot of people sought to go through the holy door at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Alabama.”
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“It was interesting: I think people would seek me out because I was a Missionary of Mercy and not, I would say, solely because I had the special faculties to remit those unique censures that are reserved to the Holy See. But I think they saw the title. They heard about the title, ‘Missionary of Mercy.’ And perhaps maybe they thought that’s a special grace. They sought me out to go to Confession.”
Father John Paul remembered an audience that the Missionaries of Mercy had with Pope Francis before they were commissioned. The pope spoke about people who had been hurt by others in the Church, especially priests.
“And it’s so true,” Father John Paul said. “I’ve heard stories of how people have been treated by priests in the Sacrament of Confession, sometimes harshly, from a very young age, and they remember that and that has kept people away from going to Confession for decades. They remember that experience of being hurt.”
“And I heard that and really internalized it, and took it as almost my own kind of personal commission, hearing from the words of the Holy Father to reach out to people who may be on the peripheries, to reach out to people who have been away from Confession for quite some time.”
“Often when I give a presentation or a homily on Confession, I take it as an opportunity to just apologize for any way a priest has ever offended you — and I make it personal. I don’t just throw it out there and say ‘you all,’ but I try to make it personal, because the Gospel is always personal.”
“Mother Angelica was always kind of famous for this. She made the Gospel tangible, real, and personal to each one of us in the way that she communicated about the Lord’s love for us.”
“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.”
Hundreds of Pope Francis' missionaries of mercy are gathering at the Vatican in coming days for formation and fellowship, for the first time since their mandate was extended at the end of the Jubilee of Mercy.