ROME – Speaking to a conference exploring the foundations of the priesthood, Pope Francis Thursday stressed the importance of closeness to God and others in the life of a priest, saying friendship and prayer can make challenges such as living the vow of celibacy easier.
“When priestly fraternity thrives and bonds of true friendship exist,” he said, it becomes possible “to experience with greater serenity the life of celibacy.”
“Celibacy is a gift that the Latin Church preserves, yet it is a gift that, to be lived as a means of sanctification, calls for healthy relationships, relationships of true esteem and true goodness that are deeply rooted in Christ,” he said.
Without true friends and without prayer, the pope said, “celibacy can become an unbearable burden and a counter-witness to the very beauty of the priesthood.”
Pope Francis spoke at the opening of a Feb. 17-19 symposium organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops titled, “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood,” focusing on the topic of “Faith and the Priesthood Today.”
In his lengthy speech, the pope said the current social context “not only to experience change, but to accept it in the realization that ours is a time of epochal change.”
He cautioned against the temptation to stay “anchored in the past” when challenges arise and refuse to move forward, or to embrace and “exaggerated optimism” that sees “the latest novelty as the ultimate reality” and forgets the wisdom of the past.
Pope Francis stressed the importance of discernment in different situations, especially within the Church and among priests.
He drew on his own experience of more than 50 years as a priest, highlighting four types of “closeness” he said are key to persevering through the ups and downs of a priest’s life and ministry.
Most importantly, he said, is closeness to God, which is where a priest draws “all the strength needed for his ministry.”
“Without a meaningful relationship with the Lord, our ministry will prove fruitless,” he said, and stressed the importance of a consistent prayer life, which he said helps a priest to trust in God during difficult moments.
“Many crises in the priesthood originate precisely in a poor life of prayer, a lack of intimacy with the Lord, the reduction of the spiritual life to mere religious practice,” the pope said, and pointed to eucharistic adoration, devotion to Mary, the presence of a strong spiritual guide, and the Sacrament of Confession as tools that proved helpful in his own priestly ministry.
At times, prayer becomes “a duty,” he said, and stressed the need to set aside the “activism of Martha,” and embrace the contemplation of her sister Mary, who in the Gospels preferred to sit with Jesus instead of busying herself with preparations for Jesus, as their guest.
“Perseverance in prayer is more than simply remaining faithful to its practice: it means not running away in those times when prayer draws us into the desert. The way of the desert is the way that leads to intimacy with God, provided we do not run away or find ways to avoid this encounter,” he said, and asked attendees if they are capable of allowing themselves to be taken into the desert.
By doing this, a priest, he said, adding, “Closeness with God enables the priest to touch the hurt in our hearts, which, if embraced, disarms us even to the point of making possible an encounter.”
Pope Francis also stressed the importance for priests to be close to their bishop, to whom priests pledge obedience at the time of their ordination.
Oftentimes this relationship is seen as “one-sided,” the pope said, noting that “even today, our view of obedience is far from the sense of the Gospel.”
“Obedience is not a disciplinary attribute but the deepest sign of the bonds uniting us in communion. To obey means to learn how to listen, to remember that no one ‘owns’ God’s will, which must be understood only through discernment,” he said.
Closeness to one’s bishop and to others, Francis said, enables a priest “to conquer all temptations to closedmindedness, self-justification and living our lives as ‘bachelors.’ Instead, it invites us to listen to others, in order to find the way that leads to truth and life.”
A bishop is not an instructor dolling out orders, but is “a father,” he said, insisting that whoever the bishop is, he represents a bond that can help in discerning God’s will.
“Obedience can also be discussion, attentive listening, and in some cases tension,” he said, and urged priests to pray for their bishops and said they should feel free to express their opinions “with respect and sincerity.”
On the other hand, obedience requires that bishops themselves “demonstrate humility, an ability to listen, to be self-critical, and to let themselves be helped. If we can preserve this bond, we will advance securely on our way,” he said.
Closeness to other priests
Speaking of the importance of friendship and closeness to other priests, Pope Francis said this fraternity is not “a moral imposition from without,” but is a deliberate choice to pursue holiness “together with others, and not by oneself.”
Friendship, he said, requires patience and the ability to feel responsible for others and to help them carry their burdens. The opposite, of patience, he said, is “indifference, the distance we create with others, so as not to get involved in their lives.”
Noting that many priests experience solitude and loneliness in their ministry, the pope said this can lead some priests to feel that they are “undeserving of patience or consideration,” expecting judgement from others, rather than kindness.
Others, he said, become incapable of taking joy in the good things that happen in their lives, or being happy when good things happen to others.
“This is envy, which is very present in our circles; it is an obstacle to the pedagogy of love, not merely a sin to be confessed,” Francis said, adding, “envy is so present in the priestly life.”
It is through envy that sin entered the world, he said, adding, “there is envy in our presbyterates. Not in all of them, but it’s there.” He urged priests, especially those involved in seminary formation, to be attentive to this, and to the prevalence of gossip.
At times a priest can feel the need to put on “masks” to be more appeal to others, some of which are off-putting, he said, stressing to attendees that “We have no need, in other words, to be boastful, much less to be inflated or, worse yet, to be arrogant or rude, lacking respect for our neighbor.”
“There are clerical forms of ‘bullying,’” he said, adding, “If there is one thing a priest can boast about, it is the Lord’s mercy.”
Real friendship, he said, is not “does not insist on its own way, or yield to anger or resentment, as if my brother or neighbor had somehow cheated me of something.”
When a priest experiences meanness from others, they must choose “not to harbor a grudge, to make that my sole basis of judgment, even perhaps to the point of rejoicing over evil in the case of those who have caused me suffering,” he said.
Rather, true love and friendship “rejoices in the truth and considers it a grave sin to offend truth and the dignity of our brothers and sisters through slander, detraction and gossip.”
On the other hand, Francis said friendship should not be “utopian” either, “much less a trite phrase useful for awakening warm feelings or stilling disagreements.”
“All of us know how difficult it can be to live in community, alongside those we have chosen to call our brothers and sisters,” he said, insisting that friendship, “provided we do not make it saccharine, redefine it or diminish it, is the ‘great prophecy’ that we are called to embody in today’s throwaway society.”
Pope Francis also emphasized the importance for priests to be close to the people in their care, saying “our relationship with the holy people of God is for each of us not a duty but a grace.”
“For this reason, the proper place of every priest is in the midst of people, in close relationship to others,” he said, adding, “Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people.”
He stressed the importance of being involved in people’s lives without “escape routes,” saying closeness to the faithful is an imitation of God’s own style of “of closeness, compassion and tenderness.”
In this mentality, he said, “we act not as judges, but as Good Samaritans who acknowledge the wounds of our people, their silent sufferings, the self-denial and sacrifices made by so many fathers and mothers to support their families. Who acknowledge, too, the effects of violence, corruption, and indifference that, in their wake, seek to stifle all hope.”
The people of God are looking for a pastor who imitates Jesus, not “clerical functionaries” or “professionals of the sacred, he said, saying priests must therefore “men of courage, ready to draw near to those in pain and lend a helping hand.”
Pointing to the prevalence of social networks in the digital world, Pope Francis cautioned that while connected to “everybody and everything,” people often lack a true feeling of belonging, which he said is something deeper than simple connectivity.
The closeness of a pastor, then, “makes it possible to gather a community and foster the growth of that sense of belonging,” he said, calling this sense of belonging an “antidote to the distortion of vocation that happens whenever we forget that the priestly life is owed to others.”
When a priest forgets that his life is owed to God and the people he serves, this is the root of clericalism, the pope said, calling clericalism a distortion of the priestly vocation “because it is based not on closeness but on distance.”
Rigidity, he said, is “another perversion” of priestly life.
Francis also called out what he said is the “clericalization of the laity,” when a small group of “elite” parishioners gather around the priest and “end up betraying their own essential mission.”
“Let us remember that ‘my mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an ‘extra’ or just another moment in life,” the pope said. “Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self.”
Pope Francis urged bishops and priests to question themselves on the status of their closeness to God, to their bishops, to other priests and to their people, saying these points “are good training for playing on an open field, where the priest is called to be present without fear or rigidity, without reducing or impoverishing his mission.”
Francis prayed that God would “visit his priests in their prayer, in their Bishop, in their brother priests and in their people. May he upset our routine, disrupt our lives and disquiet us – as at the time of our first love – and lead us to employ all our talents and abilities to ensure that our people may have life and life in abundance.”
The forms of closeness highlighted, the pope said, are a gift from God needed “to keep our vocation alive and fruitful.”
“If we are tempted to get caught up in interminable speeches, discussions about the theology of the priesthood or theories about what the priesthood should be, the Lord for his part simply looks upon us with tenderness and compassion,” he said.
“He shows priests the signposts that point the way to appreciating and rekindling their missionary zeal: closeness to God, to the bishop, to brother priests and to the people entrusted to their care. A closeness in the style of God himself, who is ever close to us, with compassion and tender love,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen