Monday, 16 September 2013

Priests as welcomers and accompaniers


This morning Pope Francis met with Rome’s priests at the basilica of St. John Lateran and, following some brief, opening remarks, spent two hours in a Q&A with them. The meeting was private and away from the lenses and microphones of journalist, but details of Pope Francis’ words have been emerging during the course of the day.

To begin with, the priests invited to the meeting were sent a letter that Francis wrote in 2008, while still a cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires, in which he reflects on the implications of the Aparecida document on the priesthood. There, Francis starts out by defining the “identity of the priest in relation to a community, with two characteristics. First, as “gift,” as opposed to “delegate” or “representative.” Second, in terms of faithfulness to the call of the Master, instead of “management.”” Francis then emphasizes that identity means belonging: “The priest belongs to the People of God, from which he has been drawn, to which he has been sent, and a part of which he is.” This communitarian aspect is further emphasized in the Aparecida document, which in its §156 affirms that “a constitutive dimension of the Christian event is belonging to a concrete communion in which we can be part of an ongoing experience of discipleship and communion with the successors of the apostles and with the successor of Peter.”

Further along in this preparatory document for today’s meeting, Francis emphasizes the joint importance of truth and mercy, which in the Aparecida document (§199) is presented thus: “to care for the flock entrusted to them and to seek out who have strayed furthest [… that they may be] servant-of-life-priests: who are alert to the needs of the poorest, committed to the defense of the rights of the weakest, and promoters of the culture of solidarity. The need is also for priests full of mercy.” Finally, Francis proposes to priests to be “enamored disciples,” since, “logically the missionary dimension is born from the interior experience of a love of Jesus Christ.” His letter to the Argentinian priests is a beautiful document in its entirety, and the above is meant to serve only as context for the very telegraphic details that have emerged so far from today’s private meeting with the priests of Rome.

The most extensive source of information so far has been an article in today’s Roma Sette, a website of the Diocese of Rome, where the following snippets are shared:
  1. Francis kicked off the Q&A by stating that “he considered himself above all to be a priest, and now as Pope he was afraid of feeling otherwise. “I would be afraid of feeling a bit more important; I am afraid of that, because the devil is cunning ... and makes you think you have power, that you can do this and that ... But thanks to God, I haven’t yet lost that fear, and if once you see that I have lost it, please, tell me, and if you can’t tell me privately, say it publicly, but say it: ‘Look, convert!’ It’s clear, isn’t it?”.” Wow! This is pretty strong stuff and it paints such a vivid picture - one that reminds me of St. Peter in the Early Church, as its head, but one that listens (cf. Galatians 2:11-14 where Paul says: “And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” - i.e., the “Incident at Antioch”).

  2. A focus again on the “existential peripheries” that Francis has spoken about before. Here, he adds that such peripheries also refer to “weak and poor thought.” Francis also added that “reality is better understood from the periphery and not from the centre, which, instead, runs the risk of degenerating.”

  3. Francis acknowledges the “serious problems of the Church,” but without being pessimistic. “The Church does not crumble. The Church has never been as well as today, it is a beautiful moment for the Church, it is enough to read its history. There are saints recognized even by non-Catholics - let’s think of Blessed Teresa - but there is also the everyday holiness of ordinary mothers and women, of men who work every day for their families, and this brings us hope. Holiness is greater than scandals.” As an example of everyday holiness, he gives the example of a woman he spoke to over the phone the previous day (!), who is a “cleaner at Buenos Aires airport and who supports her drug-addicted, unemployed son: “This is holiness.””

  4. He also speaks about the fatigue that priests feel, remembering the expression John Paul II used in his “Redemptoris Mater,” where he speaks about Mary’s “particular heaviness of heart” (§17). Francis says that “when a priest is in touch with his people, he gets tired. Faced with this tiredness, there is only Jesus’ answer: be with the poor, announce the Gospel and go ahead.” Here Francis also differentiates between different kinds of tiredness: “When a priest is in contact with his people, he works, but he sleeps well. When a priest is not in contact with his people, he works, but he works badly and sleeps badly. ... When a priest is in contact with his people, who have many real needs, need for God, then this requires serious effort - but they are the needs of God, no?, that seriously make you tired, and there is no need for sleeping pills.”

  5. Beyond fatigue, priests can also experience what St. John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul”: “there is a final effort, which is necessary at the moment that there should be triumph. ... This happens when a priest questions himself about his existence, he looks within himself at the path he has followed, at the sacrifices he has made, the children he has not had and asks if perhaps he made a mistake, if his life was a failure [… John the Baptist,] in the darkness of his confinement experienced the darkness of his soul, and sent his disciples to ask Jesus if it was He Who awaited him.”

  6. Francis then proposes the following solution both to fatigue and existential darkness: “So, what can a priest do when he lives the experience of John the Baptist? Pray, to the point of falling asleep before the Tabernacle, but stay there.” Also important are “closeness with other priests and closeness of the bishop.” Francis then goes on to underline this last point: “Us bishops have to be close to priests, we have to love our neighbors, and our closest neighbors are the priests. The closest neighbors of the bishop are the priests. [applause] The opposite is true too, eh? [laughter, applause]: the closest neighbor of the priests must be the bishop: the closest neighbor. The bishop says: my closest neighbors are my priests. This exchange is beautiful, no? I believe this to be the most important moment of closeness, between bishop and priests: this moment without words, because there are no words for this fatigue.” Another great piece of advice by Pope Francis, which very much reminds me of the key moment in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the eponymous protagonist communicates wordlessly with the ferryman Vasudeva in a moment of profound union.

  7. Another remedy against fatigue and darkness is the memory “of one’s vocation, entering seminary, one’s priestly ordination: memory is the life-blood of the Church.” Francis invites all priests to remember their initial falling in love with Jesus, the moment when they first felt Jesus’ gaze on them. “For me this is the key point: that a priest has the capacity to return in memory to his first love. ... A Church that loses her memory is an electronic Church, without life.”

  8. Francis also insisted that priest extend a “heartfelt welcome” so that “the faithful feel at home.” Referring in particular to couples who live together outside marriage, Francis emphasized the need for welcome - a welcome in truth. “Always speak the truth, knowing that the truth is not exhausted by a dogmatic definition, but that it inserts itself in the love and the fullness of God.” The priest therefore has to “accompany.” We just have to think of the disciples of Emmaus and how “the Lord has accompanied them and warmed their hearts.”

  9. Here Francis emphasizes the importance of creativity instead of novelty: “[do not] confuse creativity with making something new. Creativity is finding the path to proclaim the Gospel and ... this is not easy. It is not simply a question of changing things. It is something different, it comes from the spirit and passes through prayer and dialogue with people, with the faithful. […] The Code of Canon Law give us many, many possibilities, so much freedom to look for these things. ... We must find those moments to welcome and receive the faithful, when they enter the parish church for one reason or another.”

  10. Francis also addressed the topic of remarried divorcees: “The problem cannot be reduced merely to a matter of who can receive communion or not, because to pose the question in these terms does not enable an understanding of the real problem. ... It is a serious problem regarding the Church’s reponsibility towards families living in this situation. ... The Church must now do something to solve the problem of marriage annulment.”

  11. He also warned against economic interests by saying: “There must be a cordial welcome so that those who go to Church feel at home. They feel comfortable and do not feel as if they are being exploited. ... When people feel there are economic interests at work, they stay away”.

  12. Finally, Francis advised the priests of his diocese to beware of both severe and lax priests. “Instead, the merciful priest proclaims that ‘God’s truth is this, so to speak, dogmatic or moral truth’, but always accompanied by God’s love and patience. Do not panic – the good God awaits us. ... We must always keep in mind the word ‘accompany’ – let us be travelling companions. Conversion always takes place on the street, not in the laboratory”. This, to my mind is a fundamental point - the distinction among lax, strict and merciful - a point I didn’t get before. It made me realize that mercy involves adherence to the truth (which laxity lacks) while loving (which strictness misses).

As a married person, I am grateful to Pope Francis for these profound directions, addressed to the priests of Rome, and I feel that a lot of what he says applies equally to me and is a challenge that I too want to accept and respond to.

UPDATE (18 September 2013): Yesterday several Vatican sources (e.g., VIS, L’Osservatore Romano and Radio Vaticana) have published further details of Pope Francis’ words from the meeting with Roman clergy, which have now been added to the above post.