Year of Mercy leaves indelible mark in diocese

It takes a disciplined eye to wade through newspapers and scroll through social media feeds, to sift through what seems like an endless barrage of poverty, disease, racism and political unrest.

For those who have the ability to look beyond the desolation, it is there, among the darkest stories, where God’s mercy most clearly becomes apparent. These are the stories that Pope Francis asked people to tell, to share, to experience this past year — the year he proclaimed as the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

With the special year coming to a close Nov. 20, words and phrases like “Holy Door,” “pilgrimage,” “corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” “dialogue,” “reconciliation” and “healing” call out for further reflection. For many, these encounters with God’s mercy have left a mark that won’t disappear when the jubilee year ends.

Finding forgiveness

In the St. Cloud Diocese, an estimated 3,500 people received the sacrament of reconciliation during the Festival of Forgiveness March 4 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. at nine locations around the diocese. Many of the people who attended had been away from the sacrament for years, some for decades.

As the assembly gathered around him, Bishop Donald Kettler opened the Holy Door at St. Mary’s Cathedral Dec. 13. (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)
As the assembly gathered around him, Bishop Donald Kettler opened the Holy Door at St. Mary’s Cathedral Dec. 13. (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

“The Year of Mercy was an opportunity for us to host an event like this, encouraged by the Holy Father,” said Father Virgil Helmin, pastor of St. Marcus Church in Clear Lake and St. Lawrence Church in Duelm. While the event was open to all, organizers also wanted to offer the opportunity to those who hadn’t been to church in a long time, he said.

Though none can discuss the details of the confessional, many priests said that, when asked, several penitents acknowledged they had not received the sacrament in more than 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years.

“It was a time of great healing. We want to continue that, to continue to welcome people back to the sacrament, welcome them back to the church,” said Father Helmin, who introduced the idea to the diocesan priests council last year. The council plans to discuss the potential of hosting the event again next year.

Father Helmin, who also serves as judicial vicar of the diocesan tribunal, works with those seeking marriage annulments. Last September, Pope Francis announced that the process for those seeking an annulment would be undergoing some changes to help the process become more pastoral and to reduce the length of time it takes. Father Helmin said he has seen a dramatic change since those changes took effect last December.

In the nine months between January and September 2015, his office affirmed 45 annulments. In the same nine-month span in 2016, the number more than doubled to 98.

For him, this is also a sign of great mercy. “Pope Francis started the Year of Mercy by making all sorts of preparations, opening the Holy Door, etc. He wanted people to experience mercy in a number of different ways. Making the annulment process simpler and affordable is definitely a sign of mercy for those we want to welcome back into full communion with the church. This will have a lasting effect on individuals and families.”

Instruments of God’s mercy

When Mike Stalboerger, executive director of Birthline in St. Cloud, was asked to keynote the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s annual conference in September, he did his homework.

The theme for the event held in Melrose was, “Instruments of God’s Mercy.”

“Once I started working on the message I was going to share, as I was pulling everything together and doing some research, it hit me that this is what we do at Birthline. The spiritual works of mercy are like a guiding beacon for what we do on a daily basis,” Stalboerger said.

Birthline is a Christian-based organization which provides education, mentoring, support services and referrals to those affected by an unintended or crisis pregnancy.

“We certainly instruct and counsel the doubtful,” he said. “We are working with clients on a daily basis who are experiencing an unplanned or crisis pregnancy and easing some of their doubts, letting them know that there are tools and resources available to them through our services so that they feel confident, so they feel that hope, so that they feel there is someone with them to be a guide.”

The organization offers a full spectrum of services including relationship coaching, mentoring and working with individuals post-abortion.

“Sometimes our job is consoling them through some of the choices they made,” he said. “If they made the choices out of fear, or out of desperation, feeling like there was no other option, we can work with them. If they have chosen that route, we still welcome them with love and help them walk through it and hopefully experience forgiveness.”

From all of his work in the social services field, he said the most important thing he has learned is that “the best way we can get outside of ourselves is to do something for someone else for which they can never repay us,” he said. “We are here to serve others, and our mentality is that if we can help improve one individual, one client’s well-being in any way, shape or form, then it’s worth it.”

Stalboerger plans to continue to weave the threads of mercy throughout the organization.

“At the end of November, when the Year of Mercy ends, it doesn’t mean we put that on the shelf and move onto the next thing. It doesn’t afford us the opportunity to say we don’t need to work on being merciful,” he said.

“Carrying that forward focusing on the work we do within the works of mercy provides some nice clarity for us,” he added. “We, as a team, are answering a call to be of service to others. By having that viewpoint, we are saying we are here to walk with others through their journeys. [We are] doing God’s work, providing that message of hope and being that light to others in their darkness.

“This is one of those things we can do on a daily basis, not only with our clients here but with everyone we meet, whether it is a neighbor, a family member or a total stranger,” he said.

Making mercy visible daily

Talking to parishioners about mercy is not something new for priests. Threads of mercy are often laced throughout the Gospel readings.

But Father Ron Dockendorf, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Swanville and St. Joseph Church in Grey Eagle, took a different approach during the Year of Mercy by reading from Bishop Donald Kettler’s pastoral letter, “Be Merciful, Just as Your Father is Merciful,” at Mass each week during the Lent and Easter season.

“I was so impressed with our bishop’s letter on mercy I wanted to bring his message to our people in both parishes,” Father Dockendorf said.

Copies of the pastoral letter were made available to parishioners along with other resources and helpful bulletin announcements. Prayer cards were kept in the missals and the mercy theme was woven through many of their activities — meetings, youth group and religious education classes and in their summer vacation bible school program.

“We read stories about mercy like the Prodigal Son,” said Margaret Mettler, director of religious education at St. John’s. “Our confirmation students prepared a skit on the Good Samaritan and presented it to the younger kids. In our classrooms, we talked about what they learned from the stories and how they can relate that to their daily lives.”

Valerie Sobania, parish secretary and member of St. John’s for more than 50 years, agreed.

“I think it was good to make all of us a little more aware of the world around us, not just ourselves and our lives, but the whole world around us that we have to consider in our faith.”

Did the Year of Mercy make a difference in your life?

How were you impacted by the Year of Mercy? Did it change the way you think? Your relationship with others? With God?

If you have a Year of Mercy experience to share with The Visitor, please send it by email to Or mail your response to: “Year of Mercy,” The Visitor, P.O. Box 1068, St. Cloud, MN 56302.

Please include your name, address, parish and daytime telephone number where we can reach you if we have questions. We’ll print a selection of responses in an upcoming issue of the newspaper.

Holy Door to close at St. Mary’s Cathedral Nov. 19

Bishop Donald Kettler will preside at the closing of the Holy Door at St. Mary’s Cathedral to conclude the Year of Mercy at the 5 p.m. Mass, Saturday, Nov. 19. The cathedral is located at 25 8th Ave. S., in St. Cloud.


Author: Kristi Anderson

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