On Ash Wednesday, diocesan priest becomes a missionary of mercy
On Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis will commission 800 priests from around the world as "missionaries of mercy," sending them forth in the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Among them will be Rev. Mark Wiesner, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo of Livermore.
They should be, according to the job description, "inspiring preachers of mercy; heralds of the joy of forgiveness; welcoming, loving and compassionate confessors, who are most especially attentive to the difficult situations of each person."
A friend of Father Wiesner sent him an email late last summer: "They're looking for guys who can preach well, celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation well. You might want to think about it."
Think about it he did, at a weekend retreat he was leading for a men's group in Sonora. "I took that thought with me: Maybe this was something I could apply for. Over the course of the weekend retreat — I kept it to myself — that was my prayer intention.
"When I came off that retreat, the feeling I had was very much the feeling I had half a lifetime ago when I applied to be a missionary on the National Evangelization Team. At that time I didn't know what it meant, it felt like something I was being called to, and it was the same sense here. I realized the bishop could say no, and The Vatican could say no, but I had to take the next step."
With the approval of the bishop, he submitted his application on the day Pope Francis landed in the United States.
On Oct. 18, he received an email — a letter would follow — stating the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization "welcomes your collaboration in service as a Missionary of Mercy."
He now finds himself, he said, with "this opportunity to pick up and do the work that first led me to priesthood."
Father Wiesener, 53, grew up in the Bay Area. His home parish was St. Francis of Assisi (Most Precious Blood in his formative years) in Concord. He was graduated from De La Salle High School and UC-Davis. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1995.
Although there are still a number of unknowns, Father Wiesner does know that during his service as a missionary of mercy, he will remain pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish.
While most of his service is expected to be in dioceses other than his own, he plans to present a Lenten Mission in the Jubilee Year of Mercy in three parishes, including his own, within the Diocese of Oakland.
The missions are scheduled for Feb. 22-23, at St. Bonaventure, Concord; Feb. 29-March 2 at St. Charles Borromeo, Livermore; and March 14-16, at St. Callistus, El Sobrante.
His presentations on mercy and reconciliation, 60-to-90 minutes each evening, are rooted in Scripture and will include prayer and music.
As for the remainder of the Year of Mercy, he said, "I don't know if I will have any calls to do missionary work, or so many I can't fit them all in," he said.
He does have a reservation to walk through the Holy Door at St. Peter's, and about a dozen friends are traveling to Rome to witness his commission on Ash Wednesday.
He looks forward to a quick return home to preach at the weekend Masses in his parish as Lent begins.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the work of Missionaries of Mercy. "I truly believe the sacrament really flows from the heart of God and is at the heart of what Jesus came to do, which is to reconcile humanity with God," Father Wiesner said.
"When people come to confession, no matter what they're talking about, by their very presence, the first thing they're confessing is that they do believe in a God who forgives. They do believe in a God who loves them." The confessor's presence represents "God confessing that he believes in us and that we can do better, and that we can grow in holiness.
"I think Pope Francis' focus on mercy is a beautiful one to have because so many people, in one way or another, fear God or are afraid of confession, or afraid of owning up to the things they've done that they know they shouldn't do. If we can help people realize, as an entry point, that confession is not about your sin; it's about God's love for you. Why would you not concelebrate that reality? It's a grace-filled moment; it's a joy-filled moment.
It is a special moment for the confessor. "It can be a very humbling experience to be the confessor," he said. "You hear people whose holiness is probably greater than yours, struggling with issues you're struggling with, and that can be very powerful. So often in people's confessions, in their desire for forgiveness, to live more the life they're called to, it inspires me to double my efforts to live better what I am called to do."
Whatever he is called to do in the Year of Mercy, Father Wiesner is ready to answer.
"There are moments when it's completely overwhelming," he said. "But this truly is ministry I am passionate about and thoroughly enjoy doing. I will gladly exhaust myself over it."
(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)
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