Monday in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Pope Francis met with the clergy of the Diocese of Rome. In a relaxed and cordial atmosphere, the Holy Father invited the priests to feel free to ask any question they chose, affirming 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?”.
Francis also spoke about the weariness priests experience owing to the hard work they do. “There is the tiredness resulting from work, which we all know; we arrive home in the evening, tired after our work and we spend a moment before the Tabernacle to greet the Lord, which we must always do … 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”.
However, he continued, “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”. The Pope cited the great effort made my many figures in the Bible, by Elijah and Moses, by Jeremiah and John the Baptist. The latter, he remarked, “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. 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”. He added that they should “seek the affinity of other priests and, most importantly, bishops”.
In response to a question on pastoral service, Francis reiterated that one should 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 Pope recalled an experience he had as archbishop of Buenos Aires, when a priest was seeking a way of making his church more welcoming: “Ah, if many people pass this way, perhaps it would be good if the church were open all day … Good idea! And it would also be good if there were always a confessor available there. … Good idea! And so it went on”.
This, he explained, is “courageous creativity”, and it is necessary to “find new paths”. The Church, “and also the Code of Canon Law”, he added, “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”. He severely criticised those who were more concerned about asking for money for a certificate than with the Sacrament and therefore “keep people away”. Instead, 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”.
Francis proposed to the priests of Rome the figure of the “missionary priest”. A priest should always keep in mind his first love, for Jesus. “For me”, he said, “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”. He 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”, adding “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”.
The Holy Father also referred to the scandals that have beset the Church, confirming that it is necessary to face the most serious problems with clarity, “but without pessimism”, since “holiness is greater than scandal”. “The Church will not collapse”, he said. “On the contrary, the Church has never been in better form and is experiencing a very positive moment; one need only read her history. There are saints recognised even by non-Catholics, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 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”.
Attention turned to the theme of existential peripheries, this time referring to the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics. “The problem”, said Francis, “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”. The Pope reiterated that this matter will be discussed with the group of eight cardinals who will meet at the beginning of October in the Vatican and it will also be considered during the next Synod of Bishops which will focus on the anthropological relationship of the Gospel with the person and the family, as “a synodal approach should be take to the study of this problem”. He emphasised, “this is a real existential periphery”.
Finally, in an atmosphere of great cordiality, the Pope reminded the priests that on 21 September he will celebrate sixty years since his priestly ordination.