Where does Pope Francis stand on the perennial question of reform versus continuity, progress versus tradition? His sermon during yesterday morning’s Chrism mass made it very clear - like Benedict XVI, who referred to it as “reform in continuity,” Francis too rejects a focus on tradition alone (calling it “antiques”) as well as on progress alone (“novelties”) and instead calls us to “put [our] own skin and [our] own heart on the line” and to live in the midst of our communities, sharing the life of our neighbors. Another way of reading the popes’ position is to cast it in terms of past, present and future, with a firm focus on living in the present moment instead of a nostalgia for a past Golden Age or a putting off of life until a bright future dawns.
While it contains a clear position on where Francis’ priorities lie, yesterday morning’s sermon - which I recommend highly in full - will, in my opinion, go down as the founding moment of a renewal of the priesthood, with the following being its key moments:
“[T]he anointing that [priests] receive is meant in turn to anoint God’s faithful people, whose servants they are; they are anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed.[…]Wow! What a wake up call! And before you think: “Yeah! Them priests better get their act together,” let me just remind you (as I remind myself) that we all share in Jesus’ royal priesthood! When I heard Pope Francis say these words, I felt that he was addressing me. Do I share in the life of those around me? Do I live in their midst or am I withdrawn into introspection? These are undoubtedly great challenges, but ones that, I believe, will help all of us Christians to be more faithful followers of Jesus.
A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. […]
We need to “go out”, then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord[…]
Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men. […]
It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep”, where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction” – not function – and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.”
As is his trademark, Pope Francis proceeded to put his model of the priesthood into practice straight-away, by celebrating the Maundy Thursday mass in a juvenile detention center. Not only that, but he chose - against present liturgical law!1 - to wash the feet not of 12 men (which in the case of the popes’ Maundy Thursday masses have been priests), but of a group of youths, among whom were women as well as men and Muslims as well as Christians. This a shepherd in the midst of his flock, a fisherman putting “out into the deep”!
Not only his actions, but his words too, during the sermon of the same Maundy Thursday mass, illustrate his closeness and adaptation to the specific people he is with. The message he shares is universal, accessible to all and obviously comes from his heart:
“Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service. But it is a duty that comes from my heart and a duty I love. I love doing it because this is what the Lord has taught me. But you too must help us and help each other, always. And thus in helping each other we will do good for each other.This universality and at the same time specificity of his approach also shines through in his inviting ten parish priests from around Rome for lunch earlier that same day. One of the guests - the parish priest of the San Giacomo church in central Rome - reports:
Now we will perform the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet and we must each one of us think, Am I really willing to help others? Just think of that. Think that this sign is Christ’s caress, because Jesus came just for this, to serve us, to help us.”
“At first there was a bit of awkwardness - he is the pope after all - but he put everyone at ease. […] He didn’t want us to kiss his hand - instead he kissed each one of us. We asked him whether we could tell our parishioners that we had lunch with him and Francis told us to greet and bless them in his name. […] He also had a word of advice for each one of us. Since my parish is an inner city one, he invited me to keep my church open, as he already said during Wednesday’s general audience: “how sad to see closed churches!”. He told me that if the door is open, when someone passes by, they may enter and if they they also find a priest who is ready to hear their confession, it becomes an occasion for meeting Jesus and the Church.”
1 Although, personally and individually being the Catholic Church’s supreme and ultimate legislator, this is a moot point.