Pope Francis on Thursday offered a long reflection on his more than 52 years of priesthood, giving advice to other clerics in what he said might be the “swan song” of his priestly life.
As he gave the opening remarks at a three-day Vatican conference on the theology of the priesthood on Feb. 17, the 85-year-old pope said that there is “no theory here, I’m speaking about what I lived.”
“It may be that these reflections are the ‘swan song’ of my own priestly life, but I can assure you that they are the fruit of my own experience,” he said.
In the frank speech, Francis said that he had seen positive witnesses of the priesthood and walked with men whose “ministry had become barren, repetitive, and meaningless.”
He added that he too had faced times of difficulty and desolation in his vocation, saying that there were moments of darkness in his life when closeness to God was indispensable to sustain him.
The pope’s speech marked the start of the live-streamed summit “For a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood,” taking place on Feb. 17-19 in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. The symposium was first announced in April 2021.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, organized the meeting together with the France-based Research and Anthropology Center for Vocations.
Pope Francis’ message was organized around four forms of “closeness” that he said were “decisive” in the life of a priest: closeness to God, closeness to the bishop, closeness to other priests, and closeness to people.
He emphasized the importance of a strong prayer life and relationship with God for both priests and bishops, as well as the universal call to holiness rooted in baptism.
From his remarks:
In order to understand anew the identity of the priesthood, today it is important to live in close relationship with the real life of the people, next to them, without any way of escape. “At times we feel the temptation to be Christians by keeping a prudent distance from the Lord’s wounds. But Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He expects us to give up seeking those personal or community shelters that allow us to keep ourselves at a distance from the knot of human drama, so that we truly accept to come into contact with the concrete existence of others and we know the strength of tenderness. When we do this, life is always wonderfully complicated and we live the intense experience of being a people, the experience of belonging to a people “( ibid .., 270 ). And the people is not a logical category, no, it is a mythical category; to understand this we must approach as we approach a mythical category.
“It is crucial to remember that the People of God hope to find shepherds with the style of Jesus, and not ‘clerics of state.'”
Proximity to the People of God. A closeness which … invites – and to a certain extent demands it – to carry on the style of the Lord, which is a style of closeness, compassion and tenderness, because he is capable of walking not as a judge but as the Good Samaritan, who recognizes the wounds of his people, the suffering lived in silence, the self-denial and sacrifices of so many fathers and mothers to keep their families and consequences of violence, corruption and indifference, which as it passes tries to silence all hope. Proximity that allows us to anoint our wounds and proclaim a year of grace from the Lord (cf. Is 61,2). It is crucial to remember that the People of God hope to find shepherds with the style of Jesus, and not “clerics of state” – we remember that time in France: there was the curate of Ars, the curate, but there was “monsieur abbé”, clerics of state -. Even today, the people ask us to be pastors of the people and not clerics of the state or “professionals of the sacred”; shepherds who know of compassion, of opportunity; courageous men, capable of stopping in front of the wounded and of reaching out their hand; contemplative men who, in proximity to their people, can announce the working force of the Resurrection on the wounds of the world.
One of the crucial characteristics of our society of “networks” is that the feeling of orphanage abounds, this is a current phenomenon. Connected to everything and everyone, we lack the experience of belonging, which is much more than a connection. With the closeness of the pastor, the community can be summoned and the growth of the sense of belonging can be encouraged; we belong to the faithful Holy People of God, who are called to be a sign of the eruption of the Kingdom of God in the today of history. If the shepherd gets lost, if the shepherd goes away, the sheep too will scatter and will be within the reach of any wolf.
This belonging, in turn, will provide the antidote against a deformation of the vocation that arises precisely from forgetting that the priestly life is owed to others – to the Lord and to the people entrusted to him -. This forgetfulness lies at the basis of clericalism – of which Cardinal Ouellet spoke – and its consequences. Clericalism is a perversion, and one of its signs, rigidity, is another perversion as well. Clericalism is a perversion because it is constituted on “distances”. It is curious: not about the neighborhood, the opposite. When I think of clericalism, I also think of the clericalization of the laity: that promotion of a small elite which, around the priest, also ends up distorting its own fundamental mission ( cf.Gaudium et spes, 44), that of the layman. Many clericalized lay people, many: “I am from that association, we are there in the parish, we are …”. The “chosen”, clericalized laity, is a beautiful temptation. Let us remember that “the mission to the heart of the people is not a part of my life, or an ornament that I can take off, it is not an appendix, or a moment among many of my existence. It is something that I cannot eradicate from my being a priest if I do not want to destroy myself. I am a mission on this earth, and that is why I am in this world. We must recognize ourselves as being branded by this mission of illuminating, blessing, vivifying, relieving, healing, liberating “( Evangelii gaudium , 273 ).