The Holy See today published a lengthy letter from the pope, dated August 5, the Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.
Here’s part of it:
I, as an elderly man and from the heart, want to tell you that it worries me when we lapse into forms of clericalism; when, perhaps without realizing it, we let people see that we are superior, privileged, placed “above” and therefore separated from the rest of God’s holy people. As a good priest once wrote to me, “clericalism is a symptom of a priestly and lay life tempted to live out the role and not the real bond with God and brethren”. In short, it denotes a disease that causes us to lose the memory of the Baptism we have received, leaving in the background our belonging to the same Holy People and leading us to live authority in the various forms of power, without realizing the duplicity, without humility but with detached and haughty attitudes.
To free ourselves from this temptation, it is good for us to listen to what the prophet Ezekiel says to the shepherds: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:3-4). It speaks of “fat” and “wool”, that which nourishes and warms; the risk that the Word places before us is therefore that of nourishing ourselves and our own interests, providing ourselves with a comfortable life.
Certainly, as Saint Augustine affirms, the pastor must also live thanks to the support offered by the milk of his flock; but as the Bishop of Hippo comments: “Let them take from the milk of their sheep, let them receive what is necessary for their needs, but let them not neglect the weakness of the sheep. Let them not seek any benefit for themselves, lest they appear to be preaching the Gospel for the sake of their own need and privation; rather, let them provide the light of the true word for the sake of men’s enlightenment” (Sermon on pastors, 46.5). Similarly, Augustine speaks of wool, associating it with honors: the wool, which covers the sheep, can make us think of everything we can adorn ourselves with outwardly, seeking the praise of men, prestige, fame, wealth. The great Latin father writes: “One who gives wool gives honour. These are precisely the two things that pastors, who feed themselves and not the sheep, look for from the people – the benefit of having their wants supplied as well as the favour of honour and praise” (ibid., 46.6). When we are concerned only with milk, we think of our personal gain; when we obsessively seek wool, we think of cultivating our image and increasing our success. And in this way we lose the priestly spirit, the zeal for service, the longing for the care of the people, and we end up reasoning according to worldly foolishness: “What has this to do with me? Let everyone do what he will; my sustenance is safe, and my honor too. I have enough milk and wool, so let each one do as he likes” (ibid., 46.7).
‘It worries me when we lapse into forms of clericalism; when, perhaps without realizing it, we let people see that we are superior, privileged, placed “above” and therefore separated from the rest of God’s holy people.’
Concern, then, focuses on the “I”: one’s own sustenance, one’s own needs, the praise received for oneself instead of for the glory of God. This happens in the life of those who slip into clericalism: they lose the spirit of praise because they have lost the sense of grace, the wonder at the gratuitousness with which God loves them, that trustful simplicity of the heart that makes us reach out our hands towards the Lord, awaiting food from Him at the right time (cf. Ps 104:27), aware that without Him we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). Only when we live in this gratuitousness, can we live the ministry and pastoral relations in the spirit of service, in accordance with Jesus’ words: “You received without pay, give without pay” (Mt 10:8).
We need to look precisely to Jesus, to the compassion with which He sees our wounded humanity, to the gratuitousness with which He offered His life for us on the cross. Here is the daily antidote to worldliness and to clericalism: to look at the crucified Jesus, to fix our eyes every day on He who emptied Himself and humbled Himself unto death (cf. Phil 2:7-8). He accepted humiliation to raise us up from our falls and to free us from the power of evil. In this way, looking at Jesus’ wounds, looking at Him humbled, we learn that we are called to offer ourselves, to make ourselves broken bread for the hungry, to share the journey with the weary and oppressed. This is the priestly spirit: making ourselves servants of the People of God and not masters, washing the feet of our brethren and not trampling them underfoot.
Let us therefore remain vigilant against clericalism. May the Apostle Peter, who, as tradition reminds us, even at the moment of death humbled himself upside down in order to be equal to his Lord, help us to stay away from it. May the Apostle Paul, who, because of Christ the Lord, considered all the gains of life and the world to be refuse (cf. Phil 3:8), preserve us from it.
Clericalism, we know, can affect everyone, even the laity and pastoral workers: indeed, one can assume a “clerical spirit” in carrying out ministries and charisms, living one’s own calling in an elitist way, wrapped up in one’s own group and erecting walls against the outside, developing possessive bonds with regard to roles in the community, cultivating arrogant and boastful attitudes towards others. And the symptoms are indeed the loss of the spirit of praise and joyful gratuitousness, while the devil creeps in by nurturing complaining, negativity and chronic dissatisfaction with what is wrong, irony becoming cynicism. But, in this way, we let ourselves be absorbed by the climate of criticism and anger that we breathe around us, instead of being those who, with evangelical simplicity and meekness, with kindness and respect, help our brothers and sisters emerge from the quicksand of impatience.