POPE FRANCIS ON MINISTRY AND LIFE OF PRIESTS
Pope Francis on Friday (20-11-2015) spoke to a conference marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s decrees on the ministry and life of priests and on priestly training, noting priests’ role as coming from the community and being for the community.
The conference on Presbyterorum ordinis and Optatam totius was organized by the Congregation for the Clergy, and Pope Francis began his Nov. 20 address calling the two decrees “a seed, which the Council sowed in the life of the Church,” and which have “become a vigorous plant.”
He noted the importance of the Congregation for the Clergy having competence over seminary formation (an innovation of Benedict XVI), because “in this way the dicastery can start to deal with the live and ministry of priests from the moment of their entrance into seminary, working to ensure that vocations are promoted and cared for, and may blossom into the lives of holy priests. The path of sanctity of a priest begins in seminary!”
Pope Francis began his address, delivered in the Vatican’s Sala Regia, from “ the relationship between priests and other people … given that the vocation to the priesthood is a gift that God gives to some for the good of all.”
He reflected on Presbyterorum ordinis’ use of a text from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Priests, who are taken from among men and ordained for men in the things that belong to God in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, nevertheless live on earth with other men as brothers amid brothers,” and urged: “Let us consider these three moments: ‘taken from among men’, ‘ordained for men’, and ‘present among other men’.”
A priest, Pope Francis said, “is a man who is born in a certain human context: there he learns the primary values, absorbs the spirituality of the people, grows accustomed to relations.”
“Priests also have a history, they are not ‘mushrooms’ which sprout up suddenly in the cathedral on the day of their ordination.”
“It is important for formators and priests themselves to remember this and to know how to take into account this personal history along the path of formation … this means that one cannot become a priest, believing that one has been formed in a laboratory, no; he starts in the family with the ‘handing on’ of the faith and with all the experiences of the family.” He added that each vocation is personalized, “because it is the concrete person who is called to discipleship and the priesthood.”
The Pope added that the family, the domestic Church, is the “center of pastoral work” and the “firest and fundamental place of human formation, which can germinate in young people the desire for a life concieved as a vocational path, to be trod with commitment and generosity.”
“A good priest, therefore, is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history, with its riches and its wounds, who has learned to make peace with this, achieving the fundamental serenity proper to one of the Lord’s disciples. Human formation is therefore a necessity for priests, so that they learn not to be dominate by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.”
A priest is “a man at peace” who diffuses serenity, “even at strenuous moments, transmitting the beauty of a relationship with the Lord.”
“We priests are apostles of joy: we announce the Gospel, which is the quintessential ‘good news’; we certainly do not give strength to the Gospel … but we can favour or hinder the encounter between the Gospel and people. Our humanity is the ‘earthen vessel’ in which we conserve God’s treasure, a vessel we must take care of, so as to transmit well its precious contents.”
The Pope urged priests against “loosing their roots”: a priest “always remains a man of the people and the culture that have produced him; our roots help us to remember who we are and to where Christ has called us. We priests do not fall from above but are instead called by God, who takes us ‘from among men’, to ‘ordain us for men’.”
The second point, Pope Francis stated, is ‘for men’: “This is fundamental point in the life and ministry of priests. Responding to God’s call, we become priests to serve our brothers and sisters. The images of Christ we take as a point of reference for our ministry as priests are clear: he is the ‘high priest’, at the same time close to God and close to man; he is the ‘servant’, who washes the feet and makes himself close to the weakest; and he is the ‘good shepherd’, who always cares for his flock.”
These three images, the Pope reflected, show that “we are not priests for ourselves, and our own sanctification is closely linked to that of our people, our anointment with theirs. You have been anointed for your people. Knowing and remembering that we are ordained for the people, the holy people of God, helps priests not to think of themselves, to be authoritative, not authoritarian; firm but not hard; joyful but not superficial: in short, pastors, not functionaries.”
He recalled that “St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, said: ‘Where there is mercy, there is the spirit of the Lord; where there is rigidity there are only his ministers’. The minister without the Lord becomes rigid, and this is a peril for the people of God. Pastors, not functionaries.”
The mission of priests benefit “the people of God and all humanity,” Pope Francis said, adding that “human formation, as well as intellectual and spiritual formation, flow naturally into pastoral formation, providing tools, virtues, and personal dispositions. When all this harmonizes and blends with a genuine missionary zeal, along the path of a lifetime, the priest can fulfil the mission entrusted by Christ to his Church.”
“Finally, what is born with the people must stay with the people. The priests is always ‘among other men’: he is not a professional of pastoral ministry or evangelisation, who arrives and does what he has to do – perhaps well, but as if it were a profession like any other – before then going away and living a life apart. One becomes a priest in order to stay in the midst of the people,” he said.
Pope Francis then reflected on the particular ministry of bishops, saying that one can often hear priests complaining that he called his bishop with a problem, and “the secretary, the secretary told me he is very busy … he cannot see me for three months.”
In response to such a situation, Pope Francis had two pieces of advice for bishops: have time for your priests, and spend time in your diocese.
“A bishop is always busy, thanks be to God, but if you, a bishop, receive a call from a priest and cannot take it because you have so much work, at least pick up the phone and call him and say: ‘Is it urgent? Not urgent? Well, come this day …’, so that you feel close. There are bishops who seem to move away from priests … Proximity, at least one phone call! This is the love of a father, fraternity.”
His second point for bishops, spend time in your diocese, he demonstrated by caricaturing a bishop saying, “No, I have a conference in that city and then I have a trip to America, and then …” But Pope Francis reminded them that “look, the decree of residence of Trent is still valid! And if you do not like to remain in the diocese, resign, and travel the world doing another very good apostolate. But if you’re the bishop of that diocese, have residence there. These two things, proximity and residence. But this is for us bishops! One becomes a priest in order to say in the midst of the people.”
“The good that priests can do arises above all from their closeness and their tender love for people. They are not philanthropists or functionaries, but fathers and brothers. The fatherhood of a priest does so much good,” Pope Francis said.
He reflected on how priests are called to make concrete God’s love for the people, and turned to Confession.
“Always you can find ways to give absolution. This is good. But sometimes, you cannot absolve. There are priests who say: ‘No, this I cannot absolve, go away’. This is not the way. If you cannot give absolution, explain and say: ‘God loves you very much, God wishes you well. To come to God there are so many ways. I cannot give you absolution, but I give you a blessing. But return, always return here, for whenever you return I will give you a blessing as a sign that God loves you’. And the man or the woman goes away full of joy because they have found an icon of the Father, who never refuses; in one way or another, they have been embraced.”
The Pope then offered as an examination of conscience for priests, to ask “Where is my heart? Among the people, praying with and for the people, involved in their joys and sufferings, or rather among the things of the world, worldly affairs, my private space?”
He concluded his address by calling the conference to offer its work to the Church as a useful reflection on Vatican II’s words on the priesthood, “contributing to the formation of priests … configured always to the Lord.”