Pope Francis has encouraged seminarians training for the priesthood in Rome to study hard, avoid gossip, and to return to their dioceses as fathers rather than simply graduates.
Spontaneously answering questions with an “open heart” from a large group of seminarians from all over the world attending Rome’s pontifical colleges, the Pope addressed themes such as the priesthood, temptations, and challenges of consecrated life.
Before he began the meeting in the Paul VI hall on Monday, he addressed a special message of closeness to the Christians of Ukraine and the Middle East, emphasising that the Church still suffers greatly today, in many parts of the world, as a result of persecution.
The Holy Father spoke about the danger of “academicism”, or rather the risk that seminarians return to their dioceses simply as graduates rather than fathers, as priests, in response to a question from an American seminarian. He mentioned the four pillars of the formation of priests, which must be cultivated so as not to fall into the trap of “academicism”: spiritual, academic, communitarian and apostolic formation. A seminarian from China asked about community life, to which Pope Francis responded that it is impossible to prepare oneself for the priesthood alone; it must take place within a community, taking great care to overcome the capital sins that may arise in relations with one’s brethren.
“Never, ever speak about others behind their backs!” he said. “If I have something against someone, or I do not agree with them, I tell them directly. … Gossip is the scourge of a community; one must always speak with someone face to face, and pray for those with whom there are problems”.
Similarly, he advised them to be patient, to study hard and to make the most of all the opportunities offered them during their stay outside their countries of origin. He also urged them to seek calm through prayer and, in turbulent moments, to take refuge under the mantle of the Mother of God. “Because a good relationship with the Mother helps us to stay in good relations with the Church”. The Pope added that there is only one path to leadership in priestly life: service. “Service means doing the will of others, over and over again. Reject the path of money or vanity and be a servant, armed with humility”.
A seminarian from Cameroon asked how the various dimensions of the ministry can co-exist in a balanced way, to which Pope Francis responded that it was necessary to be vigilant, careful and organised. “The ideal is to end the day tired. … But with a good tiredness, not a reckless tiredness, that is harmful to your health over time”. In response to another question on how one should be a priest in view of the new evangelisation, the Pope commented that it is important to reach out of oneself, and to be close to the people. “A cordial closeness, a closeness of love, but also a physical closeness”. He added that the closeness of a pastor to his people can be measured by the paying attention to his homilies. He admitted that “in general, our homilies are not good – they are conferences or lessons”, and he emphasised that boring homilies on abstract subjects resemble school. “We are behind in this respect”, he admitted; “it is one of the points of conversion that the Church needs today: to improve homilies so that people can understand better”.
Finally, the Pope responded to a Polish seminarian who asked his advice on how to remain willing and happy in service to the people of God. Francis commented on the great importance of meeting with people, with the bishop and with other priests, but without fear. “Perhaps you have some inner reservations, but you must never be afraid”, and he added that “one of the treasures that you must cultivate is priestly friendship”. Before taking his leave, the Pope encouraged the seminarians to be “friends to all those whom the Lord places before you”. “Priestly friendship is the strength of perseverance, apostolic joy, courage, and also humour”.
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