Pope Francis' Message to the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Italian Bishops Conference

«Only one whose gaze is fixed on that which is truly essential can renew his yes to the gift received»

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The following is a translation of the Letter that Pope Francis sent to the participants of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference, underway in Assisi from November 10-13, on the theme of life and the permanent formation of presbyters.

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Dear Brothers in the Episcopate,

With these lines, I wish to express my closeness to each one of you and to the Churches in the midst of which the Spirit of God has placed you as Pastors. May this same Spirit be able to animate with his creative wisdom the General Assembly you are beginning, dedicated especially to life and to the permanent formation of presbyters.

In this connection, your gathering at Assisi makes me think immediately of the great love and veneration that Saint Francis had for the Hierarchic Holy Mother Church and, in particular in fact for priests, including those recognized by him as “pauperculos huius saeculi” (from the Testament).

Among the principal responsibilities that the episcopal ministry entrusts to you is that of confirming, supporting and consolidating these your first collaborators, through whom the maternity of the Church gathers the entire People of God. How many we have known! How many contributed with their witness to attract us to a consecrated life! From how many of them we learned and were molded! Each one of us keeps their names and faces in grateful memory. We saw them spend their lives among the people of our parishes, educate youth, support families, visit the sick at home and in hospitals, taking charge of the poor in the awareness that “to separate oneself from others so as not to get dirty is the greatest filth” (L. Tolstoy).  Free from things and from themselves, they remind all that to lower oneself without holding back is the way for that loftiness that the Gospel calls charity; and that the truest joy is relished in lived fraternity.

Holy priests are forgiven sinners and instruments of forgiveness. Their existence speaks the language of patience and perseverance; they are not tourists of the Spirit, eternally undecided and dissatisfied, because they know they are in the hands of One who does not fail in His promises and whose Providence is such that nothing can separate them from that belonging. This awareness grows with the pastoral charity with which they surround with care and tenderness the persons entrusted to them, until they know them one by one.

Yes, it is again the time of presbyters of this ilk, “bridges” for the encounter between God and the world, watchmen able to intuit an otherwise lost richness.

Such priests are not improvised: they are forged by the precious formative work of the Seminary, and Ordination consecrates them forever men of God and servants of His people. However, it can happen that time cools the generous dedication of the beginning, and then it is vain to sew new patches on an old garment: the presbyters identity, precisely because it comes from on high, exacts from him a daily path of re-appropriation, beginning from what made him a minister of Jesus Christ.

The formation of which we speak is an experience of permanent discipleship, which brings one close to Christ and allows one to be conformed ever more to Him. Therefore, it does not have an end, because priests never stop being disciples of Jesus, never stop following Him. Therefore, formation in as much as discipleship, accompanies the whole life of the ordained minister and concerns integrally his person and his ministry. Initial and permanent formation are two moments of a single reality: the path of the disciple presbyter, in love with his Lord and constantly following Him (cf. Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, October 3, 2014).

For the rest, brothers, you know that clerical priests are of no use, whose behavior risks distancing people from the Lord, or functionary priests that, while they carry out a role, seek their consolation far from Him. Only one whose gaze is fixed on that which is truly essential can renew his yes to the gift received and, in the various seasons of life, not cease to make a gift of himself; only one who lets himself be conformed to the Good Shepherd finds unity, peace and strength in the obedience of the service; only one who breathes in the horizon of presbyterial fraternity comes out of the sham of a conscience that pretends to be the epicentre of everything, only measure of one’s feeling and actions.

I hope you will have days of listening and discussions, which lead to tracing itineraries of permanent formation, able to combine the spiritual dimension with the cultural, the community dimension with the pastoral: these are the pillars of life formed according to the Gospel, guarded in daily discipline, in prayer, in the guarding of the senses, in the care of oneself, in humble and prophetic witness; lives that restore to the Church the trust that she first placed in them.

I accompany you with my prayer and my Blessing, which I extend, through the intercession of the Virgin Mother, to all the priests of the Church in Italy and to all those who work at the service of their formation, and I thank you for your prayers for me and for my ministry.

From the Vatican, November 8, 2014


[Original text: Italian] [Translation by ZENIT]
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