Q-and-A Session With Parish Priests (Part 1)

“Let Us Not Lose the Simplicity of the Truth”

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 3, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Following a Lenten tradition, Benedict XVI met last Thursday with parish priests and clergy of the Diocese of Rome for a question-and-answer session. Here is a translation of the first question and the Holy Father’s answer.

ZENIT will be publishing these transcriptions over the coming days.

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[Father Gianpiero Palmieri:]

Holy Father, I am Father Gianpiero Palmieri, pastor of St. Frumenzio ai Prati Fiscali parish. I would like to ask you a question on the evangelizing mission of the Christian community and, in particular, on the role and formation of priests within this evangelizing mission.

To explain myself, I will start with a personal experience. When I was a young priest, I began my pastoral service in a parish and school; I felt strong because of the weight of my studies and the formation received, well affirmed in the realm of my convictions of the systems of thought. A believing and wise woman, seeing me in action, shook her head smiling and said to me: “Father Gianpiero, when will you wear long pants, when will you be a man?” It was an incident that remained engraved in my heart.

That wise woman was trying to explain to me that life, the real world, God himself, are greater and more surprising than the concepts we elaborate. She was inviting me to listen to the human to try to understand, to comprehend, without being in a hurry to judge. She was asking me to learn how to enter into relationship with reality, without fears, because reality is inhabited by Christ himself who acts mysteriously in his Spirit.

In face of the evangelizing mission today, we priests feel unprepared and inadequate, always with short pants. Whether under the cultural aspect — detailed knowledge of the great guidelines of contemporary thought escapes us, in its positivity and its limits — or, especially, under the human aspect. We run the risk of being too schematic, incapable of knowing in a wise way the heart of the men of today. Is not the proclamation of salvation in Jesus also the proclamation of the new man Jesus, Son of God, in which our poor humanity is redeemed, made genuine, transformed by God?

Therefore, this is my question: do you share these thoughts? Many people wounded by life come to our Christian communities. What venues and ways can we invent to help others’ humanity in the encounter with Jesus? And how can we priests construct a beautiful and fruitful humanity? Thank you, Your Holiness.

[Benedict XVI:]

Thank you! Dear brothers, first of all I would like to express my great joy at being with you, parish priests of Rome: my pastors, we are in family. The cardinal vicar has told me that it is a moment of spiritual rest. And in this sense I am also grateful to be able to begin Lent with a moment of spiritual rest, of spiritual breath, in contact with you.

And he also said: We are together so that you can tell me your experiences, your sufferings, also your successes and joys. Therefore, I wouldn’t say that the oracle speaks here, to whom you ask questions. We are, rather, in a family exchange, in which it is very important for me to know, through you, life in the parishes, your experiences with the Word of God in the context of our world today. I also would like to learn, to come close to the reality, of which in the Apostolic Palace one is also a bit removed. And this is also the limit of my answers. You live in direct contact, day by day, with today’s world; I live in diversified contacts, which are very useful.

For example, I have now had the ad limina visit of the bishops of Nigeria, and I have been able to see, through individuals the life of the Church in an important country of Africa, with 140 million inhabitants, a large number of Catholics, and touch the joys and also the sufferings of the Church.

But for me this is obviously a spiritual rest, because it is a Church as we see her in the Acts of the Apostles. A Church where there is a fresh joy of having found Christ, of having found God’s Messiah. A Church that lives and grows each day. People are happy that they have found Christ. They have vocations, so they can give fidei donum priests to the different countries of the world. And to see, not a tired Church, as we often find in Europe, but a young Church, full of the joy of the Holy Spirit, is certainly a spiritual refreshment. However, with all these universal experiences, it is also important for me to see my diocese, the problems and all the realities you live in this diocese.

In this sense, I am essentially in agreement with you: It is not enough to preach or to do pastoral work with the precious cargo acquired in theology studies. This is important, it is essential, but it must be personalized: from academic knowledge, which we have learned and also reflected upon, in a personal vision of my life, in order to reach other people. In this sense, I would like to say that it is important, on one hand, to make the great word of the faith concrete with our personal experience of faith, in our meeting with our parishioners, but also to not lose its simplicity. Naturally, great words of the tradition — such as sacrifice of expiation, redemption of Christ’s sacrifice, original sin — are incomprehensible as such today. We cannot simply work with great formulas, [although] truths, without putting them in the context of today’s world. Through study and what the masters of theology and our personal experience with God tell us, we must translate these great words, so that they enter into the proclamation of God to the man of today.

And, on the other hand, I would say that we must not conceal the simplicity of the Word of God in valuations that are too heavy for human approaches. I remember a friend who, after hearing homilies with long anthropological reflections in order to bring others near the Gospel, said: But I am not interested in these approaches, I want to understand what the Gospel says! And it seems to me that often instead of long summaries of approaches, it would be better to say — I did so when I was still in my normal life: I don’t like this Gospel, we are the opposite of what the Lord says! But what does it mean? If I say sincerely that at first glance I am not in agreement, I already have their attention: It is understood that I would like, as a man of today, to understand what the Lord is saying. Thus we can, without circumlocution, enter fully into the Word.

And we must also keep in mind, free of false simplifications, that the Twelve Apostles were fishermen, artisans, of the province of Galilee, without special preparation, without knowledge of the great Greek and Latin worlds. And yet they went to all the places of the Empire, even outside of it, to India, and proclaimed Christ with simplicity, with the force of simplicity of what is true. And this also seems important to me: Let us not lose the simplicity of the truth. God exists and he is not a distant, hypothetical being, rather, he is close, he has spoken to us, he has spoken to me. And so we say simply what it is and how naturally it should be explained and developed. However, we must not lose the awareness that we do not propose reflections, we do not propose a philosophy, but rather the simple proclamation of the God who has acted, and who has also acted with me.

And then, in regard to the Roman cultural context, which is absolutely necessary, I would say that the first assistance is our personal experience. We don’t live on the moon. I am a man of this time if I live my faith sincerely in today’s culture, being one who lives with today’s media, with dialogues, with the realities of the economy, with everything; if I myself take seriously my own experience and try to personalize these realities in myself. Thus we’ll be on the way to making ourselves understood also by others. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said in his book of reflections to his disciple, Pope Eugene: “Try to drink from your own fount, that is, from your own humanity.”

If you a
re sincere with yourself and you begin to see in yourself what faith is, with your human experience in this time, drinking from your own well, as St. Bernard says, you can also say to others what must be said. And in this sense it seems important to me to be really attentive to today’s world, but also to be attentive to the Lord in oneself: to be a man of this time and at the same time a believer in Christ, who in himself transforms the eternal message into a current message.

And who knows the men of today better than the parish priest? The sacristy is not in the world, but in the parish. And there, to the pastor, men often come normally, without a mask, without other pretexts, but in situations of suffering, infirmity, death, family issues. They come to the confessional unmasked, with their own being. It seems to me that no other profession gives this possibility of knowing man as he is in his humanity, and not in the role he has in society. In this sense, we can really study man in his depth, far from his roles, and we ourselves also learn about the human being, to be a man in the school of Christ. In this sense, I would say that it is absolutely important to know man, the man of today, in ourselves and in others, but always in attentive listening to the Lord and accepting in myself the seed of the Word, because in me it is transformed into wheat and is able to be communicated to others.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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