The Calling of Peter and Andrew

The Calling of Peter and Andrew
The Calling of Peter and Andrew by Domenico Ghirlandaio, (Fresco, 1481-1482, Sistine Chapel)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When You Start Being a Pope, You Don’t Stop Being a Priest…

 … but you may have a few more things to say to your brother priests.

(Wednesdays on this blog are “Priest to Priest,” an opportunity for priests to encourage and exhort other priests.  Laymen are welcome to listen in!)

Pope Francis is great for many reasons.  One of those reasons is his wise and piercing counsel to priests.   Over the past sixteen months I’ve learned that, before I start to read his exhortations to priests, I need to take a deep breath and prepare to be socked between the eyes.

In an audience* at the Vatican with the priests and seminarians of the Pontifical Leonine College of Anagni on April 14, 2014, Pope Francis challenged these men to consider the real meaning of a priestly vocation:  

The seminary is not a refuge for those who have “psychological problems” or lack the courage “to get on in life”. The seminary is a place where one develops their vocation, gaining an in-depth understanding of the Gospel, Confession, the Eucharist and prayer. “If you are not willing to follow this path with these attitudes and these experiences, – and I say this from the heart, without meaning to offend anyone - it is better to have the courage to seek another.”

“Dear seminarians, what you are preparing for is not a profession, you are not training to work in a business or a bureaucratic organization.  We have so many priests who have gone half way … it’s sad that they did not manage to go the whole way; they have something of the employee in them, something of the bureaucrat in them and this is not good for the Church. Please be careful you don’t fall into this! You are becoming pastors in the image of Jesus, the good pastor. Your aim is to resemble him and act on behalf of him amidst his flock, letting his sheep graze.” 
“We respond to this vocation in the same way as the Virgin Mary does to the angel: ‘How is this possible?’ Becoming ‘good shepherds in the image of Jesus is something very great and we are so small.  Yes, it is true, it is too great; but it is not our work! It is the work of the Holy Spirit, with our collaboration.”

As is his custom, Pope Francis added spontaneous comments to his prepared speech. “It is about humbly giving oneself, like clay that is to be moulded, letting God the potter work the clay with fire and water, with the Word and the Holy Spirit.” It is true that “at the beginning intentions are not completely righteous, and it is hard for them to be so.  All of us have had moments when our intentions were not completely righteous but in time this changes with everyday conversion. Think of the apostles! Think of James and John. One of them wanted to be prime minister and the other a minister of the economy because it was a more important role. The apostles’ mind was elsewhere but the Lord patiently corrected their intention and in the end the intention of their preaching and martyrdom was incredibly righteous.”

Being good shepherds means “meditating on the Gospel every day to pass its message on through one’s life and preaching.” It also means experiencing God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” “It is vital to always go to confession so you can become generous and merciful ministers because you will feel God’s mercy upon you, encouraging you to become generous and merciful ministers.”  It means feeding on faith and love of the Eucharist in order to provide nourishment to the Christian people.” “It means being men of prayer so as to become the voice of Christ that praises the Father and constantly intercedes for their brothers.” If you are not willing to follow this path, with these attitudes and these experiences, – and I say this from the heart, without meaning to offend anyone - it is better to have the courage to seek another. There are many ways, in the Church, to bear Christian witness and there are many paths that lead to sainthood. Following in Christ's ministry allows no place for mediocrity, which always leads to using the holy people of God to one's own advantage. Woe to bad shepherds who feed themselves and not their flock! – the prophets said.  Augustine quotes this prophetic phrase in the De pastoribus, which I advise you to read and meditate on. Woe to bad shepherds because the seminary is not a refuge for the many shortcomings we may have; it is not a refuge for psychological problems or a refuge for those who do not have the courage to go on in life and see the seminary as a place that will defend them. No, that is not what it is. If that is what your seminary was it would become a mortgage for the Church! No, the seminary is there for people to move forward, along this path and when we hear the prophets exclaim the word “Woe” it should lead you to reflect seriously on your future. Pius XI once said it was better to lose a vocation than to risk accepting a candidate who is not sure.  He was a mountain climber, he knew about these things.”

Boom.  Right between the eyes.  Or, as St. Francis de Sales says a bit more profoundly, “Cor cordi loquitur”: “Heart speaks to heart.”

*For the official text, in English, of the Holy Father’s April 4, 2014 address to priests and seminarians, see:

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