Committed a Super-serious Sin? Head for a Super-confessor!

A priest takes confession to a woman before the return of Pope Francis to Mexico City on Feb. 13, 2016. DIANA ULLOA/AFP/Getty Images

After being given supersized powers to forgive the gravest of sins, 1,142 Catholic priests and monks are now fanning out around the globe at the behest of Pope Francis. These so-called "missionaries of mercy" or "super-confessors," were dispatched by the pope on Feb. 10, which the Christian church celebrated as Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season of fasting and prayer.

The super-confessors have less than a year to perform their charitable works. The pope decided to commission them as part of his Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, a special 12-month period during which the Catholic Church is focusing on forgiveness, especially the forgiveness of Catholics who left the faith but now wish to return. The Year of Mercy began Dec. 8, 2015, and will end Nov. 20, 2016.


(Pope Francis shown below with some of the missionaries of mercy.)

In the Catholic religion, most sins are forgiven through the sacrament of confession, performed by one's parish priest. Not so for those sins the church believes to be the most heinous. Since the 12th century, these most reprehensible sins, called "reserved sins," can only be forgiven by a bishop or the pope himself.

Reserved sins are so serious, not many people have committed them. These sins include physically attacking the pope; apostasy (renunciation of the Christian faith); heresy;  schism (rejection of the pope's authority); violating the secrecy of the confessional; consecrating a bishop without authorization; and desecration of the Eucharist — believed to be Christ's body — by, say, using it in a satanic ritual.

Actually, there is one more reserved sin, and it is quite common: abortion. The Catholic Church considers abortion a reserved sin both for the woman who has one and anyone who performs or facilitates the obtaining of one. The moment an abortion occurs, in fact, those involved are automatically excommunicated from the church, which means they cannot receive its sacraments. (They also can't be employed by, or hold any position in, a parish or diocese, and they can't receive a Catholic burial. But they can still attend Mass.) 

The missionaries of mercy, who come from dioceses around the globe, all readily volunteered for their positions with the approval and recommendation of their superiors. Indeed, a far greater number of priests applied for the positions than expected.

Normally, papal absolution for reserved sins comes via a ruling of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a special tribunal in Rome, and not through a one-on-one with the pope himself. It is this more cumbersome process of needing to seek forgiveness through one's bishop or the Apostolic Penitentiary that Pope Francis wishes to streamline through his super-confessors.

Just in case business is slow for the super-confessors, Pope Francis has given them another task: helping dioceses throughout the world by conducting retreats and parish missions. According to the Jubilee of Mercy website, the men are also simply to be seen out in the world as "heralds of the joy of forgiveness" and "inspiring preachers of mercy."