VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Thursday offered a long reflection on his more than 52 years of priesthood, offering advice to other clerics in what he said could be the “swan song” of his priestly life.
The 85-year-old pope said on February 17 that there was ‘no theory here, I’m talking about what I’ve been through’, as he delivered the keynote address to a three-party conference days on the theology of the priesthood.
“These reflections may be the ‘swan song’ of my own priestly life, but I can assure you that they are the fruit of my own experience,” he said.
In the candid speech, Francis said he had seen positive witnesses to the priesthood and had walked with men whose “ministry had become sterile, repetitive and meaningless.”
He added that he too had faced times of difficulty and desolation in his vocation, saying there were times of darkness in his own life where closeness to God was essential to sustain him.
The pope’s speech marked the start of the summit “For a fundamental theology of the priesthood”, from February 17 to 19 in the Paul VI hall of the Vatican. The symposium was first announced in April 2021.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, organized the meeting with the Center for Research and Anthropology of Vocations.
Pope Francis’ message was organized around four forms of “closeness” which he said were “decisive” in the life of a priest: closeness to God, closeness to the bishop, closeness to other priests and closeness to people.
He emphasized the importance of a strong prayer life and relationship with God for priests and bishops, as well as the universal call to holiness rooted in baptism.
“The life of a priest is above all the story of the salvation of a baptized person,” he said. “We must never forget that each particular vocation, including that of Holy Orders, is a completion of baptism.”
Francis noted that there is a temptation to live the priesthood without remembering that the primary vocation is to holiness.
“To be holy means to conform to Jesus,” he said. “It is only when we strive to love others as Jesus does that we make God visible and fulfill our call to holiness.”
He quoted Saint John Paul II, who wrote in his 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis that “the priest, like any other member of the Church, must grow in the awareness that he himself continually needs to be evangelized”.
There are priests and bishops today who do not understand this, Pope Francis reflected, calling it “today’s tragedy”.
The pope said the Church was living through a period of “changing epochs,” but people should not look for comfort either in the past or in the future.
“I rather prefer the response born of a confident acceptance of reality, rooted in the wise and living Tradition of the Church, which allows us to go out into the open without fear,” he said.
Pope Francis warned his listeners that many crises in the priesthood stem from a poor prayer life and a lack of intimacy with God, which reduces the spiritual life “to a mere religious practice.”
“Intimacy born of prayer, spiritual life, concrete closeness to God through listening to his word, the celebration of the Eucharist, the silence of adoration, trust in Mary, the wise accompaniment of ‘a guide and the sacrament of reconciliation… Without these ‘forms of closeness’, a priest is just a weary mercenary who enjoys none of the benefits of the friends of the Lord,” he said.
Prayer is also the “first task” of a bishop, he said, adding: “It must increase, I must decrease, says Saint John the Baptist.”
Having a good relationship with God, finding moments of silence throughout the day, is key, he noted.
This silence, he says, is often avoided because it can be uncomfortable. Instead of feeling peace, we feel emptiness, “and to avoid feeling that, we don’t want to slow down.”
Work can become “a distraction from falling into desolation”, the Jesuit pope said, referring to a central concept in Ignatian spirituality.
He encouraged priests and bishops to overcome uncomfortable feelings of desolation and to persevere in prayer.
He also advised them to seek fellowship with other priests, which “means deliberately choosing to pursue holiness with others, not by oneself.”
“As an African proverb says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others. Sometimes it seems that the Church is slow, and it is. Yet I like to think of it as the slowness of those who have chosen to walk in brotherhood,” he said.
Priestly brotherhood and friendship also help priests live a celibate life with more serenity, Francis said.
“Celibacy is a gift that the Latin Church preserves, but it is a gift which, to be lived as a means of sanctification, calls for healthy relationships, relationships of true esteem and true goodness deeply rooted in Christ” , he observed.
“Without friends and without prayer,” he said, “celibacy can become an unbearable burden and a counter-witness to the very beauty of the priesthood.”
Pope Francis also urged priests to be close to the people, saying he was “convinced that, for a renewed understanding of the identity of the priesthood, it is important today to be closely involved in the real life of the people, to live by their side, without escape”. routes. »
He stressed that people were looking for “Jesus-like shepherds”, not “clerical officials” or “professionals of the sacred”.
People need them to be “men of courage, ready to reach out to those who are suffering and to lend a hand”, he said. “Contemplative men, whose closeness to people allows them to proclaim before the wounds of our world the power of the Resurrection at work still today.”
Addressing the crisis of priestly vocations, Pope Francis reflected on the need for life and fervor and the desire to bring Christ to others.
He said that even in communities where the priests were not particularly engaged or joyful, the community of the baptized can inspire vocations through their prayers and active, fraternal life.
“This is especially the case if this community prays insistently for vocations and has the courage to offer its young people a path of special consecration,” he said.
“Looking at his own humanity, his own history, his own personality, each of us should ask himself, he continues, not if it is pleasant or not to respond to a vocation, but if, in conscience, this vocation puts in light within us the potential of Love that we received on the day of our baptism.