Missionary of Mercy focuses on ongoing transformation

Paulist Father Bruce Nieli led a Lenten retreat for those involved in charitable service. (Photo by Enedelia J. Obregón)

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

The Diocese of Austin hosted a day of spiritual retreat for people and groups in the diocese and in parishes involved in the charitable service of the church.
The Lenten retreat at St. Thomas More Parish in Austin was designed to help participants focus on the mission to serve as Christ served and to see Christ in every person and client they serve.
Paulist Father Bruce Nieli served as spiritual moderator for the retreat. He is one of more than 1,000 priests world-wide who were commissioned as Missionaries of Mercy by Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday.
DeKarlos Blackmon, director of the diocesan Office of Life, Charity and Justice, said that in the day-to-day hustle of life, “we often forget to take care of ourselves.”
“Like the woman at the well, she encountered a man who knew how messy her life was and didn’t mind,” Blackmon said. “Every day we are called to encounter people in our lives or charitable services. Like Christ, we should seek to heal that heart and change that mind.”
Participants prayed the Way of the Cross and went through a series of guided reflections on Christ’s love and mercy and the challenges participants face in fulfilling their ministries and serving others.
Father Nieli, wearing a purple stole with the insignia of the Year of Mercy given to all the missionaries, said Catholic social teaching is globally what connects Pope Francis’ idea of mercy and his entire approach to evangelization as well as locally what connects the diocesan Pastoral Plan with evangelization and catechesis.
At the heart of it all, Father Nieli said, is the encounter that leads to transformation. In “The Joy of the Gospel:” Pope Francis writes, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”
Those in charitable service of the church bring people to that encounter in our everyday actions, Father Nieli said.
“My first encounter was on my mother’s lap,” he said.
Picking up his guitar, he sang “Jesus Love Me,” which his mother used to teach him about Jesus. 
“That’s my first memory of Jesus,” Father Nieli said. “The Holy Spirit was the music that brought me to Jesus.”
He said when we talk about Jesus, we should not be cold and abrupt or judgmental. “It should be like a mom singing to her child,” he said.
Christ would speak with a tone of mercy, compassion and tenderness, just as a mother would, Father Nieli said. 
He also said that no one is perfect and it can be difficult to be compassionate and merciful in frustrating circumstances. That’s when we need to remember that Jesus left the Keys to the Kingdom with Peter, an imperfect man who denied him three times. However, Jesus did not admonish or punish. All he asked of Peter was, “Do you love me?”
Father Nieli said to better serve others, we must first strengthen our relationship with Jesus, and the best way to do that is through prayer and listening to what God has to say to us. This requires humility, which as British author and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, said means “not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” 
He said we must remember Jesus’ love and devotion to the poor, the sick and the outcast and not be pretentious or judgmental like the Pharisees in Scripture.
Father Nieli reflected on the day he was asked to bless the remains of people found in a buried stairwell of the fallen World Trade Center towers.
“When I was brought to the bodies, I was filled with rage,” Father Nieli said. “I knew I couldn’t bless the bodies and do it with rage … so I called on the Holy Spirit.”
As he prepared to bless the bodies, he prayed St. Augustine’s prayer to the Holy Spirit:  “Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.”
Our transformation must be ongoing all our lives, even in the darkest of times, he said.