At the conclusion of our meeting as Missionaries of Mercy with the Holy Father, we were given a gift, a small replica of one of the panels on the holy door of St Peter’s. There are 16 panels on the door; we were given the one depicting the Prodigal Son at the moment of his return, kneeling before the father who embraces him.
Which is both an obvious and, at the same time, puzzling choice. Obvious, because that parable is one that all preachers and pastors employ to illustrate the mercy of God towards the repentant sinner, so much so that even those who know little about Christianity have heard the basic story. But also puzzling, because it is just that, a parable, a fictional story.
It’s a tale of great power, told as it was by God himself, but nevertheless a story told to convey a message. Contrariwise, the holy door has several panels of Jesus actually showing mercy instead of telling parables about it. Indeed, there is a panel of the Crucifixion itself, mercy incarnate on the Cross, at the moment when Jesus promises paradise to the good thief. There is another panel where the risen Jesus, on the evening of Easter Sunday, gives his Apostles the authority to forgive sins. Either panel would be most fitting for priests – the moment of sacrifice on the Cross, made present at every Mass, or the moment of the institution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – especially for those priests charged with promoting confessions.
The Missionaries of Mercy were convoked in Rome for days of encouragement in the mission entrusted to them by Pope Francis during the Jubilee of Mercy and extended at the conclusion of the jubilee year. When extending their mandate as confessors with universal faculties, the Holy Father wrote more generally (Misericordia et misera #11):
The Sacrament of Reconciliation must regain its central place in the Christian life. This requires priests capable of putting their lives at the service of the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), in such a way that no sincerely repentant sinner is prevented from drawing near to the love of the Father who awaits his return …
The image there is that of the father of the Prodigal Son. In his address to us on April 10, Pope Francis returned to that favoured image:
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