In the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis 1.071 priests all over the world – among them 19 German ones – appointed as "Missionaries of Mercy". But what does the pope's authority actually empower them to do?
1.071 "Missionaries of Mercy" sent out by Pope Francis to dioceses around the world on Ash Wednesday, including 19 Germans. The confessors are endowed with the authority to forgive even those sins from which, per se, only the Holy See can absolve – such as illicit episcopal consecrations or physical attacks on the pope.
In advance, Francis on Tuesday evening called on pastors to always see the "desire for forgiveness in the hearts of sinners" during confession. Their shame should be met with "respect and encouragement," Francis told about 700 clergy members. "To be missionaries of mercy is a responsibility entrusted to you because it requires you to be most personal witnesses of God's closeness and love," the pope said.
"Do not investigate, but continue"
Further, Francis urged pastors to keep in mind during confession, "It is Christ who receives, it is Christ who hears, it is Christ who forgives, it is Christ who gives peace." Good confessors must know how to interpret words and gestures correctly, Francis added in free speech. Sometimes sinners repent, but they are afraid or have problems talking about their sins. If priests realized this, they should not investigate, but proceed, Francis said.
Distinction between sin and criminal punishment
Basically, a distinction must be made between sin and the penalty associated with it, explains Klaus Ludicke, an expert in canon law from Munster, Germany. According to the canon lawyer, any confessor can absolve from the sin itself – "that is, the guilt before God that weighs on the conscience" – "even without the Pope's new initiative". However, in serious cases, the annulment of an offence is incumbent upon the Holy See or the local bishop.
The so-called deed penalty occurs by itself with the commission of the deed, even without explicit imposition, without having to be imposed specifically like the "sentence penalty". The best-known example is the sin of abortion, which is accompanied by excommunication. In the case of abortion, the annulment of this penalty is reserved to the local bishop. In the case of abortion, Francis already relaxed the rule last September. Since then, in the "Year of Mercy", all priests are allowed to lift the penalty of excommunication associated with abortion.
Abolition of the penalties
Those penalties that only the Holy See can cancel and, as of Ash Wednesday, also the approximately 1.000 Missionaries of Mercy, are described in the "canones" 1367, 1370, 1378, 1382 and 1388 of canon law, the so-called "Codex Iuris Canonici". These include the defilement of the Eucharist (canon 1376), a physical attack on the Pope (canon 1370), the absolution of a confessing person with whom the priest had previously had sexual intercourse (1378), the illicit consecration of a bishop (1382), the breaking of the seal of confession (1388).
Since the expansion of the penal provision in the Codex of 2010, the attempt to administer the sacrament of Holy Orders to a woman is also included here. It is therefore not possible to speak of a special authority to forgive sins in strict terms of canon law, Ludicke said. The core of the authority is directed rather to the cancellation of the penalty associated with sin.
With the initiative, Francis is setting a new precedent. In the Lateran Basilica, in St. Peter's Basilica and in Santa Maria Maggiore, there are international religious priests who are assigned to the Grand Penitentiary – currently Cardinal Mauro Piacenza – and are on duty for the pilgrims in this regard. However, there has not yet been a widespread transmission of the authority.
For the Linz vicar general and canon lawyer Severin Lederhilger, this is the pope's "great concern" to "invite people again more strongly to forgiveness and reconciliation in confession.". The clear hint for this was given by the pope again in the promulgation bull: "Perhaps we forgot for a long time to point out the way of mercy and to walk on it. In our time, when the Church is committed to the new evangelization, it is necessary to present the theme of mercy with new enthusiasm and a renewed pastoral ministry."The Missionaries of Mercy should now live this idea in many places of the world and assist people with grave misconduct.