Papal audience to conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy for the 50th anniversary of the decrees Presbyterorum ordinis and Optatam Totius


Pope’s Address on Mission, Formation of Priests

“Let us consider these three moments: ‘taken from among men,’ ‘ordained for men,’ present ‘with other men’”

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Here is a translation of the Pope’s address from Friday to participants in the Congress organized by the Congregation for the Clergy, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Conciliar Decrees Optatam Totius and Presbyterorum  Ordini

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Lord Cardinals.

Dear Brother Bishops and Priests,

Brothers and Sisters,

I give each of you my cordial greeting and express my sincere gratitude to you, Cardinal Stella, and to the Congregation for the Clergy, for inviting me to take part in this Congress, fifty years after the promulgation of the Conciliar Decrees Optatam Totius and Presbyterorum Ordinis.

My apologies for having changed the first plan, which was that I should come to you, but you saw there was no time and I have also arrived here late!

This is not about a “historical recalling.” These two Decrees are a seed, which the Council sowed in the field of the life of the Church; in the course of these five decades they have grown, they have become a luxuriant plant, certainly with some dried leaves, but above all with so many flowers and fruits that embellish the Church today. Reviewing the path accomplished, this Congress has shown these fruits and has constituted an opportune ecclesial reflection on the work that remains to be done for the Church in this vital realm. There is still work to be done!

Optatam Totius and Presbyterorum Ordinis were recalled together, as the two halves of a single reality: the formation of priests, which we distinguish as initial and permanent, but which constitutes for them a unique experience of discipleship. It is no accident that in January of 2013 (Motu proprio Ministrorum Institutio) Pope Benedict gave a concrete, juridical form to this reality, attributing also to the Congregation for the Clergy competence over seminarians. In this way the Dicastery itself was able to begin to be concerned with the life and the ministry of presbyters from the moment of their entrance in the Seminary, working so that vocations are promoted and looked after, and can flower in the life of holy priests. A priest’s path of holiness begins in the Seminary!

From the moment that a vocation to the priesthood is a gift that God makes to some for the good of all, I would like to share some thoughts with you, beginning in fact from the relation between priests and other persons, following n. 3 of Presbyterorum Ordinis, in which is found something like a small compendium of theology of the priesthood, addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Priests who are taken from among men and ordained for men in the things that belong to God in order to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, nevertheless live on earth with other men as brothers.”

Let us consider these three moments: “taken from among men,” “ordained for men,” present “with other men.”

The priest is a man that is born in a certain human context. There he learns the first values, absorbs the spirituality of the people, gets used to relationships. Priests also have a history; they are not “mushrooms” that appear suddenly in the Cathedral on the day of their Ordination. It is important that formators and the priests themselves remember this and are able to take into account this personal history throughout the path of formation. On the day of Ordination I always say to priests, to new priests: remember from where you were taken, from the flock, do not forget your mother and your grandmother! Paul said this to Timothy, and I also say it today. This means that one cannot be a priest thinking that one was formed in a laboratory, no. It begins in the family with the “tradition” of the faith  and with all the experience of the family. The latter must be personalized, because it is the concrete person that is called to discipleship and to the priesthood, taking into account in every case that Christ is the only Teacher to follow and to whom one should configure oneself.

In this regard, I like to recall the fundamental “center of vocational pastoral ” that is the family, domestic Church and first and fundamental place of human formation, where the desire can germinate in youths of a life conceived as a vocational path, to follow with commitment and generosity.

In the family and in all other communitarian contexts – school, parish, associations, groups of friends – we learn to be in relation with concrete persons, we let ourselves be shaped by our relation with them, and we become what we are also thanks to them.

A good priest, therefore, is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his history, with its riches and its wounds, and who has learned to make peace with it, attaining in depth serenity, proper of a disciple of the Lord. Therefore, human formation is a necessity for priests, so that they learn not to let themselves be dominated by their limitations, but rather to put their talents to fruit.

A priest who is a tranquil man will be able to spread serenity around him, also in difficult moments, transmitting the beauty of the relation with the Lord. Instead, it is not normal for a priest to be often sad, nervous or hard of character, it is not good and does not do good, neither to the priest nor to his people. However, if you have an illness, if you are neurotic, go to the doctor! To the spiritual doctor and to the clinical doctor: they will give you pills that will do you good, both will! But please, let not the faithful pay for the neurosis of priests! Do not beat the faithful; have a heartfelt closeness to them.

We priests are apostles of joy, we proclaim the Gospel, namely, the “Good News” par excellence. It is certainly not us who give force to the Gospel – some believe this – but we can favor or set obstacles to the encounter between the Gospel and persons. Our humanity is the “clay vessel” in which we guard God’s treasure, a vessel that we must look after, to transmit well its precious content.

A priest cannot lose his roots; he always remains a man of the people and of the culture that generated him. Our roots help us to remember who we are and where Christ has called us. We priests do not fall from on high, but we are called, called by God, who takes us from “among men” to ordain us “for men.” Allow me an anecdote. In the diocese, years ago … Not in the diocese, no, in the Society, there was a good priest, good, young, a priest for two years. He became confused, spoke with the Spiritual Father, with his Superiors, with doctors and said: “I’m going, I can’t anymore, I’m going.” And thinking of these things – I knew his mother, humble people – I said to him: “Why don’t you go to your mother and speak to her about this?” He went, spent the whole day with his mother, and returned changed. His mother gave him two spiritual “slaps,” told him three or four truths, put him in his place, and he went forward. Why? –because he went to the root. Therefore, it is important not to remove the root from where we come. One must engage in mental prayer in the Seminary … Yes, certainly, this must be done, learn …. But first of all pray as your mother taught you, and then go ahead. But the root is always there, the root of the family, as you learned to pray as a child, also with the same words, begin to pray like that. Then you will go forward in prayer.

Here is the second passage: “for men.”

Here is a fundamental point of the life and ministry of presbyters. Responding to God’s vocation, we become priests to serve brothers and sisters. The images of Christ that we take as reference for the ministry of priests are clear: He is the “High Priest,” in the same way close to God and close to men. He is the “Servant” that washes t
he feet and makes himself close to the weakest. He is the “Good Shepherd” who always has as his end the care of the flock.

These are the three images we must look at, thinking of the ministry of priests, sent to serve men, to have them attain God’s mercy and to proclaim His Word of life. We are not priests for ourselves and our sanctification is closely connected to that of our people, our unction to their unction: you were anointed for your people.  To know and to remember that you are “ordained for the people” – holy people, People of God —  helps priests not to think of themselves, to be authoritative and not authoritarian, firm but not harsh, joyful but not superficial, in sum, Pastors not functionaries. Today in both Readings of the Mass one sees clearly the capacity to enjoy that the people have, when the Temple is repaired and purified and, instead, the incapacity for joy that the heads of the priests and the scribes have in face of the expulsion of the merchants from the Temple by Jesus. A priest must learn to rejoice, he must never lose, even better, the capacity for joy: if he loses it, there is something that is not right. And I tell you sincerely, I am afraid of stiffening, I am afraid. From rigid priests … stay far away! They bite you! And there comes to mind that expression of Saint Ambrose, 4th century: “Where there is mercy there is the spirit of the Lord, where there is rigidity, there are only His ministers.” Without the Lord the minister becomes rigid, and this is a danger for the People of God – be Pastors, not functionaries.

The People of God and the whole of humanity are the recipients of the mission of priests, to which the whole work of formation tends. The human formation, the intellectual and spiritual formation come together naturally in that pastoral care, to which they furnish instruments and personal virtues and dispositions. When all this is harmonized and amalgamated with genuine missionary zeal, throughout the whole of life, the priest can fulfill the mission entrusted to him by Christ to His Church.

In fine, what is born of the people, with the people must remain; the priest is always “with other men,” he is not a professional of pastoral care or of evangelization, who arrives and does what he must – perhaps well, but as if it were a profession – and then goes to live a separate life. One becomes a priest by being in the midst of the people: closeness. And permit me, Brother Bishops, also our closeness as Bishops with our priests.  This is also true for us! How often do we hear the laments of priests: “But, I called the Bishop because I have a problem … The or secretary told me he was very busy, that he was going about, that he cannot receive me for three months …” Two things. The first. A Bishop is always busy, thank God, but if you, Bishop, receive a call from a priest and you cannot receive him because you have too much work, at least pick up the telephone and ask him : “Is it urgent? It’s not urgent? When? Come that day …”, thus he feels close. There are Bishops who seem to distance themselves from priests … Closeness, at least a phone call! And this is the love of a father, fraternity. And the other thing. “No, I have a conference in that city and then I must make a trip to America, and then …” But, listen, the decree of residence of Trent is still in force! And if you do not feel like staying in the diocese, resign, and go around the world doing another very good apostolate. However, if you are Bishop of that diocese – residence. These two things: closeness and residence. But this is for us, Bishops! One becomes a priest to be in the midst of the people.

The good that priests can do is born especially from their closeness and from a tender love for persons. They are not philanthropists or functionaries; priests are fathers and brothers. A priest’s paternity does so much good.

Closeness, depths of mercy, loving look: to make one experience the beauty of a life lived according to the Gospel and the love of God that makes itself concrete also through His ministers. God who never rejects. And here I think of the Confessional. Ways can always be found to give absolution. Receive well. However, sometimes one cannot absolve. There are priests that say: “No, I cannot absolve you of this, go away.” This is not the way. If you cannot give absolution, explain and say: “God loves you so much, God wishes you well. There are so many ways to come to God. I cannot give you absolution, I’ll give you a blessing. But come back, always come back here; every time you come back I will give you a blessing as a sign that God loves you.” And that man or that woman goes away full of joy because he/she has found the icon of the Father, who never rejects; in one way or another He has embraced him/her.

A good examination of conscience for a priest is also this: if the Lord returned today, where would He find me? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).  And, where is my heart? In the midst of the people, praying with and for the people, involved in their joys and sufferings, or instead in the midst of the things of the world, of earthly affairs, in my private “spaces”? A priest cannot have private spaces, because he is always either with the Lord or with the people. I think of those priests I have known in my city, when there was no telephone secretary, but they slept with the telephone on the night table, and at whatever time the people called, they got up to anoint: no one died without the Sacraments! Not even in rest did they have a private space. This is apostolic zeal. The answer to this question: where is my heart? This can help every priest to direct his life and ministry to the Lord.

The Council left “precious pearls” to the Church. As the merchant of Matthew’s Gospel (13:45), today we go in search of them, to bring new impetus and new instruments to the mission that the Lord entrusts to us.

One thing I would like to add to the text – forgive me! – is vocational discernment, admission to the Seminary. Look for the health of a boy, his spiritual health, material, physical and psychic health. Once, just appointed Novice Master, in the year ’72, I went to take to the psychologist the results of the personality tests, a simple test that was done as one of the elements of discernment. She was a good woman, and also a good doctor. She said to me: “This one has this problem but he can enter if he goes this way …” She was also a good Christian, but in some cases she was inflexible: “This one can’t” – “But, Doctor, this boy is so good.” “Now he is good, but know that there are youths that know unconsciously, they are not that aware of it, but feel unconsciously that they are psychically sick and they look in their life for strong structures that will defend them, so that they can go forward. And they do all right until the moment they feel well established and then the problems begin” – “It seems a bit strange to me …” And I shall never forget her answer, the same as that of the Lord to Ezekiel: “Father, have you never thought why there are so many police torturers? They enter young, seem to be healthy but when they feel secure, the illness begins to come out. These are the strong institutions that look for these unconscious sick: the police, the army, the clergy … And then so many illnesses we know come out.” It’s curious. When I realize that a youth is too rigid, too fundamentalist, I have no confidence; there is something behind that he himself does not know. But when he feels secure … Ezekiel 16, I don’t remember the verse but it is when the Lord says to His people all that He has done for it: found it when just born, and then clothed it, espoused it … “ And then, when you felt secure, you prostituted yourself.” It is a rule, a rule of life. Open eyes on the mission in Seminaries. O
pen eyes.

I hope that the fruit of the works of this Congress – with so many authoritative relators – from different regions and cultures – will be able to be offered to the Church as a useful updating of the teachings of the Council, bringing a contribution to the formation of priests, those that are and those that the Lord will give us, so that, ever more configured to Him, they are good priests according to the Lord’s heart, not functionaries! And thank you for your patience.

[Original text: Italian]

[Translation by ZENIT]

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