During Pope Francis’ Saturday visit to Caserta, he met with diocesan priests in the Palatine Chapel of the Palace of Caserta around 4 p.m.
Below is a translation of the text of the Holy Father’s dialogue with the priests.
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Monsignor D’Alise, Bishop of Caserta: Your Holiness, I haven’t prepared anything in writing because I understood immediately that you want an intimate and profound relation with the priests. Therefore, I say to you: welcome. This is our Church, the priests, and then we will go to see the rest of the Church, while we celebrate the Eucharist. This is an important moment for me, because I have been here for two months, and to begin this episcopate with your presence and your blessing is for me a grace upon grace. And now we await your word. Knowing that you desire a dialogue, the priests have also prepared questions for you.
Holy Father: I have prepared an address, but I will give it to the Bishop. Thank you so much for your welcome. Thank you. I am happy and I feel somewhat guilty for having combined so many problems on the day of your patronal feast, but I was unaware of it. And when I called the Bishop to tell him that I wanted to come to make a private pastoral visit, here, to a friend, the pastor, he said to me: “Ah, in fact on the feast day of your patron saint!” And I immediately thought: “The following day, the newspapers will report: on the feast day of Caserta’s patron saint, the Pope went to see the Protestants.” — a nice headline, no? And so we set up the event, somewhat in a hurry, but the Bishop helped me so much, and also the people of the State Secretariat. I said to the Substitute, when I called him: “But, please, take off the cord from my neck.” And he did it well. Thank you for the questions you will pose; we can begin; the questions are posed and I will see if I can consolidate two or three, otherwise I will answer each one.
–Q: Holiness, thank you. I am the Vicar General of Caserta, Father Pasquariello. An immense thank you for your visit here, to Caserta. I would like to ask a question: the good that you are bringing to the Catholic Church with your daily homilies, official documents, especially Evangelii Gaudium, are marked above all by a spiritual, profound and personal conversion. It is a reform that, in my modest opinion, involves only the sphere of Theology, Biblical Exegesis and Philosophy. Besides this personal conversion, what is essential for eternal salvation, I would consider some intervention, by Your Holiness, which can involve the People of God more, precisely as people. And I will explain myself.
For 900 years, our diocese has had absurd boundaries: some communal territories are divided half with the diocese of Capua and with that of Acerra. In fact, the station of the city of Caserta, less than one kilometer from the municipality, belongs to Capua. For this reason, Most Blessed Father, I ask you for a resolute intervention so that our communities no longer have to suffer from useless shifts and the pastoral unity of our faithful is not mortified further. It is clear, Holiness that in No. 10 of Evangelii Gaudium, you say that these things belong to the Episcopate; however, I remember that as a young priest – 47 years ago – we went with Monsignor Roberti – he had come out of the Secretariat of State — and we brought some problems; there also they said, after having explained things: “You agree with the Bishops and we will sign.” And this is something very beautiful. However, when are Bishops in agreement?
–The Holy Father: Some historians of the Church say that in some of the first Bishops’ Councils they even resorted to blows, but then they agreed. And this is a bad sign. It is bad when Bishops speak ill of one another, or are tied together. I don’t say we must have unity of thought or unity of spirituality, because this is good, I say tied in the negative sense of the word. This is bad because, in fact, the unity of the Church is broken. This isn’t of God. And we Bishops should give the example of unity that Jesus asked the Father for the Church. But we can’t go speaking ill of one another: “And this one does it this way and that one does it the other way.” But go, say it openly! In the first Councils, our forbearers did so with blows, and I prefer that four strong things be shouted and that then they embrace and not that they speak hiddenly of one another. This, as a general principle, namely: important in the unity of the Church is the unity among Bishops. You underscored a way that the Lord willed for his Church. And this unity among the Bishops is the one that fosters agreement on this or that. In a country – not in Italy – there is, on one hand, a diocese whose boundaries were remade, but because of the location of the treasure of the Cathedral, they have been in conflict in the courts for more than 40 years. For money: this can’t be understood. It is here where the devil celebrates” He is the one who wins.
It’s lovely, then, that you say that the Bishops must always be in agreement: but agreement in unity, not in uniformity. Each one has his charism; each one has his way of thinking, of seeing things. Sometimes this variety is the fruit of mistakes, but many times it is the fruit of the Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit willed that there be this variety of charisms in the Church. The same Spirit that makes diversity then succeeded in making unity; unity in the diversity of each one, without anyone losing his own personality. However, I hope that what you said will go forward. And then we are all good, because we all have the water of Baptism, we have the Holy Spirit within us who helps us to go forward.
–Q: I am Father Angelo Piscopo, parish priest of Saint Peter the Apostle and Saint Peter in the Chair. My question is this: Holiness, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, you invited us to encourage and reinforce popular piety, that precious treasure of the Catholic Church. However, at the same time, you showed the risk – unfortunately ever more real – of the spread of an individual and sentimental Christianity, more attentive to traditional forms and to revelation, deprived of the fundamental aspects of the faith and deprived of influence in social life. What suggestion can you give us for a pastoral that, without mortifying popular piety, can re-launch the primacy of the Gospel? Thank you, Holiness.
–The Holy Father: One hears it said that this is a time where religiosity has gone down, but I don’t believe this so much. Because there are these currents, these schools of private religiosity, like the Gnostics, that engage in a pastoral that is similar to a pre-Christian prayer, a pre-biblical prayer, a Gnostic prayer, and Gnosticism has entered the Church in these groups of private piety: I call this. does no good; it is something for me, I am calm, I feel full of God. It is a bit – it isn’t the same – but somewhat the way of the New Age. There is religiosity, but a pagan religiosity, or actually heretical. We mustn’t be afraid to say this word, because Gnosticism is a heresy, it was the first heresy of the Church. When I speak of religiosity, I speak of that treasure of piety, with so many values, which the great Paul VI described in Evangelii Nuntiandi. Think of this: in the Aparecida Document, which was the Document of the 5th Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, there is a synthesis at the end of the Document itself, in the penultimate paragraph — because the other two were of thanksgiving and prayer — which had to wait 40 years to take a piece of Evangelii Nuntiandi, which is the post-Conciliar Document that is yet to be surpassed.
It is of enormous present importance. In that document, Paul VI describes popular piety, affirming that sometimes it must also be evangelized. Yes, because as with every piety there is the risk of going a bit on one side and a bit on the other or of not having a strong expression of faith. However, the piety that people have, the piety that enters in the heart with Baptism is an enormous strength, to the point that the People of God that has this piety as a whole, cannot err, it is infallible in credendo: so says Lumen Gentium in no. 12. True popular piety is born of that sensus fidei of which this conciliar Document speaks and guides in devotion to Saints, to Our Lady, and also with folkloric expressions in the good sense of the word. Therefore, popular piety is fundamentally inculturated; it cannot be a popular piety of the laboratory, ascetic, but it is always born of our life. Little mistakes can be made – so one must be vigilant – however, popular religiosity is an instrument of evangelization. We think of today’s young people. Young people – at least the experience that I had in my other diocese – the young people, the youth movements in Buenos Aires didn’t work. Why? They were told: let’s have a meeting to talk … and in the end the young people were bored. However, when parish priests found the way to involve young people in the small missions, to engage in the mission during vacations, the catechesis of people in need of it, in small communities that don’t have a priest, then they adhered.
Young people really want this missionary activity and they learn from it to live a form of piety which can also be called popular piety: the missionary apostolate of young people has something of popular piety in it. Popular piety is active, it is a profound sense of faith – says Paul VI – which only the simple and the humble are able to have. And this is great! In Shrines, for instance, one sees miracles! Every July 27 I went to the Shrine of San Pantaleo in Buenos Aires, and I heard Confessions in the morning. However, I returned renewed from that experience, I returned ashamed of the holiness that I found in simple people, sinful but holy, because they told their own sins and then described how they lived, the problem of their son or daughter, or of this or that person, and how they went to visit the sick — an evangelical sense showed through. I found these things in the Shrines. The Shrines’ Confessionals are a place of renewal for us priests and Bishops. They are a course in spiritual updating, because of contact with popular piety. And when the faithful come to Confession, they tell you their miseries, but one sees behind those miseries the grace of God that leads them to this moment. This contact with the People of God that prays, that is pilgrim, that manifests its faith in this form of piety, helps us so much in our priestly life.
–Q: You allow me to call you Father Francis, also because paternity implies inevitably holiness, when it is authentic. As a pupil of the Jesuit Fathers to whom I owe my cultural and priestly formation, I will mention an impression of mine, and then a question that I address to you particularly. The identity kit of the priest of the third millennium: human and spiritual balance; missionary conscience; dialogical openness with other faiths, religious or not. Why this? You certainly have wrought a Copernican revolution by your language, lifestyle, behavior and Catholic-Christian witness. The question I ask is: how is it possible in this society, with a Church that hopes for growth and development, in this society in a dynamic and conflictual evolution and very often far from the values of the Gospel of Christ, we are a Church that very often is slow. Your linguistic, semantic and cultural revolution of evangelical witness is certainly arousing in consciences an existential crisis for us priests. Can you suggest imaginative and creative ways to us, to surmount or at least to deaden this crisis which we perceive? Thank you.
–The Holy Father: Look, how is it possible to go forward with a growing and developing Church? You said several things: balance, dialogical openness … But, how can we go forward? You said a word that pleases me very much: it is a divine word, if it is human it is because it is a gift of God: creativity. It is the commandment that God gave to Adam: “Go and make the earth grow. Be creative.” It is also the commandment that Jesus gave his own, through the Holy Spirit, for instance, the creativity of the early Church in relations with Judaism: Paul was creative; Peter, on the day when he went to Cornelius’ house, was afraid of them, because he was doing something new, something creative. But he went there. The word is creativity. And how can this creativity be found? First of all – and this is the condition if we wish to be creative in the Spirit, namely, in the Spirit of the Lord Jesus – there is no other way than prayer. A Bishop that doesn’t pray, a priest that doesn’t pray has closed the door, has closed the way of creativity. It is in fact in prayer when the Spirit make you feel something, then the devil comes and makes you feel something else; but prayer is the condition to go forward., even if prayer so often can seem boring.
Prayer is so important – not only the prayer of the Divine Office, but the liturgy of the Mass, calm, well done with devotion, personal prayer with the Lord. If we don’t pray, we might be good pastoral and spiritual entrepreneurs, but without prayer the Church becomes an NGO, she does not have the unctio Spiritu Sancti. Prayer is the first step, because it is opening oneself to the Lord to be able to open oneself to others. It is the Lord who says: ”Go here, go there, do this …” he arouses in you that creativity which cost so much to so many Saints. Think of Blessed Anthony Rosmini, he who wrote The Five Wounds of the Church, was in fact a creative critic, because he prayed. He wrote what the Spirit made him hear, therefore he went to a spiritual prison, namely, to his house: he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t teach, he couldn’t write, his books were on the Index. Today he is Blessed! So many times creativity leads to the cross. However, when it comes from prayer, it bears fruit. Not a creativity that is somewhat sans facon and revolutionary, because today it is fashionable to be a revolutionary; this is not of the Spirit. But when creativity comes from the Spirit and is born in prayer, one can bear problems. Creativity that comes from prayer has an anthropological dimension of transcendence, because through prayer one is open to transcendence, to God. However, there is also another transcendence: to open oneself to others, to one’s neighbor. There is no need to be a Church shut in on herself, which looks at her navel, a self-referential Church , which looks at herself and is incapable of transcendence. The twofold transcendence is important: to God and to one’s neighbor. To come out of oneself isn’t an adventure; it is a way, it is the way that God has indicated to men, to people since the first moment when He said to Abraham: “Go from your land.” To go out of oneself. And when I come out of myself, I encounter God and others.
How do I encounter others? — from afar or up close? One must meet them up close, closeness. Creativity, transcendence and closeness. Closeness is a key word: to be close. Not to be afraid of anything. To be close. The man of God is not frightened. Paul himself, when he saw so many idols in Athens, was not frightened but he said to those people: “You are religious, you have so many gods … but I will speak to you of another.” He was not frightened and he came close to them, he even quoted their poets: “As your poets say …” It is about closeness to a culture, closeness to persons, to their way of thinking, to their sorrows, to their resentments. So often this closeness is in fact a penance, because we must hear annoying, offensive things. Two years ago, a priest who went as a missionary to Argentina – he was of the diocese of Buenos Aires and he went to a dioceses of the South, in an area where there had been no priest for years, and the Evangelicals had arrived – told me that he went to the house of a woman who had been a teacher of the people, and then the directress of the school of the area. This lady made him sit down and she began to insult him, not with bad words, but to insult him with force. “You have abandoned us, you have left us alone, and I who am in need of the Word of God had to go to the Protestant worship and I became a Protestant.” This young priest, who is meek and one who prays, when the woman finished her tirade, said: “Lady, only one word: forgiveness. Forgive us, forgive us. We abandoned the flock.” And the tone of that woman changed. However, she remained a Protestant and the priests did not enter the argument about which was the true religion: this couldn’t be done at that moment. Finally, the lady began to smile and said: “Father, would you like a coffee?” – “Yes, let’s have coffee.” And when the priest was about to leave, she said: Stop, Father, come,” and she led him to the bedroom, opened the closet in which was the image of Our Lady: “You must know that I never abandoned her. I’ve hidden her because of the pastor, but she is in my home!” It’s an anecdote that shows how closeness, meekness, made this woman reconcile with the Church, because she had felt abandoned by the Church. And I asked a question which should never be asked: “And then, how did it end? How did the thing end? “ However, the priest corrected me: Ah, no, I haven’t asked for anything: you continue to go to the Protestant worship, but if you see that it is a woman who prays: the Lord Jesus. And he didn’t go beyond, he did not invite her to return to the Catholic Church. It is that prudent closeness, which knows where it must reach. However, closeness means pure dialogue; one must read in Ecclesiam Suam, the doctrine on dialogue, later repeated by other Popes.
Dialogue is so important, but two things are necessary to dialogue: one’s own identity as the point of departure and empathy with others. If I’m not sure of my identity and I go to dialogue, I end up by exchanging my faith. One cannot dialogue if one doesn’t begin from one’s own identity, and empathy, that is, not to condemn a priori. Every man, every woman has something of their own to give; every man, every woman has his/her own story, his/her own situation and we must listen to it. Then the prudence of the Holy Spirit will tell us how to respond to them. Begin from one’s own identity to dialogue, but dialogue isn’t to engage in Apologetics, even if sometimes it should be done, when questions are posed that require an explanation. Dialogue is a human thing, it is hearts, spirits that dialogue, and this is so important! Don’t be afraid to dialogue with anyone. A Saint said somewhat jokingly – I don’t remember , I believe it was Saint Philip Neri, but I’m not sure – who was able to dialogue even with the devil. Why? Because he had that freedom to listen to all persons, but beginning from his own identity. He was so sure, but to be sure of one’s identity does not mean to engage in proselytism. Proselytism is a trap, which Jesus also condemns somewhat, en passant, when he speaks to the Pharisees and the Sadducees: “You who go around the world to find a proselite and then you remember that … But it is a trap. And Pope Benedict has a very beautiful expression, which he expressed at Aparecida, but I think he repeated it somewhere else: “The Church grows not by proselytism but by attraction.” And what is attraction? It is this human empathy which is then led by the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, what will be the profile of the priest of this very secularized century? A man of creativity, who follows God’s commandment to — “create things”; a man of transcendence, be it with God in prayer or with others, always; a man of closeness who approaches people. To distance oneself from people is not priestly and sometimes people are sick and tired of this attitude, and yet the same thing comes from us. However, one who welcomes people and is close to them, dialogues with them because he is sure of his own identity, which drives him to have a heart open to empathy. This is what comes to me to tell you, to answer your question.
–Q: Dearest Father, my question concerns the place where we live: the diocese, with our Bishops, relations with our brothers. And I ask you: this historic moment which we are living has expectations in our dealings as presbyters, namely of a clear, open and joyful witness – as you are inviting us to do – precisely with the novelty of the Holy Spirit. I ask you: in your opinion, what could be in fact the specific, the foundation of the spirituality of a diocesan priest? It seems to me that I read somewhere that you say: “The priest isn’t a contemplative.” However, before it wasn’t so. Therefore, can you give us an icon to keep present for the rebirth, the communal growth of our diocese. And above all, I am interested in how we can be faithful, today, to man, not so much to God.
–The Holy Father: Look, you said “the novelty of the Holy Spirit.” It’s true, but God is the God of surprises, He always surprises us, always, always. We read in the Gospel and find one surprise after another. Jesus surprises us because he arrives before us: He waits for us first, loves us first, when we seek him he is already seeking us. As the prophet Isaiah or Jeremiah says, I don’t remember well: God is like the flower of the almond tree, it is the first to flower in spring. He is the first, always the first, he always awaits us. And this is the surprise. So many times we seek God however he awaits us there And then we come to the spirituality of the diocesan clergy. Contemplative priest, but not like one who is in the Certosa, I don’t mean this kind of contemplation. The priest should have of contemplation, a capacity to contemplate God or men. He is a man who looks, who fills his eyes and is weary with this contemplation: with the Gospel before God, and with human problems before men. However, where is the center of the spirituality of the diocesan priest? I would say that it is in the diocese. It is the capacity to open oneself to the diocese. The spirituality of a religious, for instance, is the capacity to open himself to God and to others in the community: be it the smallest or the largest of the Congregation.
Instead, the spirituality of the diocesan priest is to open himself to the diocese. And you, religious, who work in parishes must do both things, that is why the dicastery of Bishops and the dicastery of Consecrated Life are working on a new version of the Mutuae relations, because the religious has both memberships. But let us turn to what is of the diocese: what does it mean? It means to have a relation with the Bishop and a relation with the other priests. The relation with the Bishop is important, it is necessary. A diocesan priest can’t be detached from the Bishop. “But the Bishop doesn’t love me, the Bishop here, the Bishop there …” The Bishop could be perhaps a man with a bad character, but he is your Bishop. And you must find, also in that negative attitude, a way to maintain your relation with him. This, in any case, is the exception. I am a diocesan priest because I have a relation with the Bishop, a necessary relation. Very significant is the moment in the rite of Ordination when the vow of obedience is made to the Bishop. “I promise obedience to you and to your successors.” The diocese means a relation with the Bishop that must be acted and made to grow continually. In the majority of cases it is not a catastrophic problem, but a normal reality. In the second place the diocese entails a relation with other priests, with the whole presbytery. There is no spirituality of the diocesan priest without these two relations: with the Bishop and with the presbytery. And they are necessary. “Yes, I am well with the Bishop, but I don’t go to the meetings of the clergy because stupid things are said.” However, with this attitude you are lacking something: you don’t have the true spirituality of the diocesan priest.
It’s all here: it’s simple, but at the same time it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy because to be in agreement with the Bishop is not always easy, because on thinks one way and the other another way, but one can discuss … and yes, discuss!” And can it be done in a loud voice? Yes, frankly. How many times a son discusses with his father and in the end they remain always father and son. However, when diplomacy enters in these two relations, be it with the Bishop or with the presbytery, the Spirit of the Lord isn’t there, because the spirit of freedom is lacking. One must have the courage to say ”I don’t think of it this way, I think differently,” and also the humility to accept a correction. It’s very important. And what is the greatest enemy of these two relations? Gossip. I often think – why do I also have this temptation to gossip, we have it within, the devil knows that the seed gives fruits when well sowed – and I wonder if it isn’t a consequence of a celibate life lived as sterility, not as fecundity. A man alone ends up embittered, he isn’t fecund and gossips about others. This is an area that doesn’t do good, it is in fact what impedes that evangelical and spiritual and fecund relation with the Bishop and the presbytery. Gossip is the strongest enemy of the diocese, namely, of spirituality. But, you are a man, then, if you have something against the Bishop, go and tell him so. But then there will be consequences that aren’t good. You will carry the cross, but be a man! If you are a mature man and you see something in your brother priest of which he doesn’t tolerate to be corrected, go and tell the Bishop and the closest friend of that priest, so that he can help him to correct himself. But do not speak of it to others, because that is to soil one another. And the devil is happy with that “banquet,” because in this way he attacks in fact the center of the spirituality of the diocesan clergy. For me, gossip does much harm. And it’s not a post-conciliar novelty. Saint Paul already had to face it.
Recall the phrase: “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos …” Gossip was a reality that was present at the beginning of the Church, because the devil doesn’t want the Church to be a fecund, united, joyful Mother. Instead, what is the sign of these two relations, between the Bishop and between the priest and the other priests, are they going well? It’s joy. Just as bitterness is the sign that there isn’t true diocesan spirituality, because a good relation is lacking with the Bishop or with the presbytery, joy is the sign that things are working. One can discuss and get angry, but there is joy above all, ndt it is important that it remain always in these two relations which are essential for the spirituality of the diocesan priest.
I would like to turn to another sign, the sign of bitterness. A priest, here in Rome, once said to me: “But I see that so many times we are a Church of angry men, always angry with one another; we always have something to be angry about.” This leads to sadness and bitterness: there is no joy. When we find in a diocese a priest who lives so angered and with this tension, we think but in the morning this man has vinegar for breakfast. Then, at lunch, the vegetables have vinegar, and then at night he has a nice lemon juice. So his life isn’t going well, because he is the image of a Church of angry men. Instead, joy is the sign that all is well. One can get angry; it’s also healthy to get angry once. However, the state of anger is not of the Lord and leads to sadness and lack of union. And at the end, you said ”fidelity to God and to man.” It’s the same thing we said earlier. It is the twofold fidelity and the twofold transcendence: to be faithful to God is to seek him, to open oneself to him in prayer, remembering the he is the faithful one, he cannot deny himself, he is always faithful. And then to open to man and to have that empathy, that respect, that feeling, and to say the right word with patience.
We must stop out of love for the faithful who are waiting … But I truly thank you, and ask you to pray for me, because I also have the difficulties of every Bishop and I must also take up again every day the path of conversion. Prayer for one another will do us good to go forward. Thank you for your patience.[Original Text: Italian] [Translation by Zenit]