Here is a working translation of the Pope’s address today when he received in audience participants in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy.
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Lord Cardinals, Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I address a cordial greeting to you all and express my gratitude for your generous commitment at the service of priests and their formation. My heartfelt thanks go to Cardinal Beniamino Stella for his words and for the great work he is doing.
I rejoice to be able to dialogue with you on the great gift of the Ordained Ministry, a few months after the promulgation of the new Ratio Fundamentalis. This Document speaks of an integral formation, capable, that is, of including all aspects of life, and thus it points out the way to form the missionary disciple – a fascinating and at the same time demanding undertaking.
Reflecting on these two aspects – the fascination of the call and the demanding requirements it entails, I thought in particular of young priests, who live the joy of the beginning of the ministry and, at the same time, perceive its weightiness. The heart of a young priests lives between enthusiasm for the first projects and the anxiety of apostolic efforts, in which he immerses himself with a certain fear, which is a sign of wisdom. He feels profoundly the jubilation and the strength of the anointing received, but his shoulders begin to feel gradually the weight of the responsibility, of the numerous pastoral commitments and the expectations of the People of God.
How does a young priest live all this? What does he bear in his heart? What does he need so that his feet, which run to take the happy proclamation of the Gospel, are not paralyzed in face of fear and the first difficulties? So that he does not have, does not follow the temptation to seek refuge in rigidity or to leave everything and be a “dispersed” <person>.
It is necessary to admit that, often, the young are judged in a rather superficial way and are too easily labelled as “liquid” generation, devoid of passions and ideals. There certainly are fragile, disoriented, fragmented young people or infected with the culture of consumerism and individualism. However, this must not impede us from recognizing that young people are capable of betting strongly on life and getting involved with generosity, of looking to the future and thus being an antidote in regard to the resignation and loss of hope that marks our society; of being creative and imaginative, courageous in changing, magnanimous when it comes to spending themselves for others or for ideals such as solidarity, justice and peace. With all their limitations, they are always a resource.
We can ask ourselves, then: among us priests, how do we see young priests? Do we allow ourselves first of all to be illumined by the Word of God, which shows us how the Lord calls young people, trusts them, and sends them for the mission?
While “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Samuel 3:1), because the people were perverted and no longer listened to the Lord’s voice, God turned to the young Samuel, a small “altar boy of the Temple” who became a prophet for the people (cf. 1 Samuel 3:1-10). Then, the Lord’s gaze, going beyond every appearance, chose David, the smallest among Jesse’s son, and anointed him King of Israel (Cf. 1 Samuel 16:1-13). To Jeremiah, worried about being too young for the mission, the Lord offers His paternal reassurance: “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’ [. . . ] for I am with you: (Jeremiah 1:7.8). We can also learn from the Gospels that the Lord’s choice falls on little ones, and the mission to proclaim the Gospel, entrusted to the disciples, is not based on the greatness of human strength, but rather on the willingness to let oneself be guided by the gift of the Spirit.
See what I want to say to young priests: you are chosen, you are dear to the Lord! God looks at you with the tenderness of a Father and, after having made your heart enamoured, He will not let your steps hesitate. You are important in His eyes and He has confidence that you will be up to the mission to which He has called you. How important it is that young priests find parish priests and Bishops that encourage them in this perspective, and not just wait for them because there is need of change and of filling empty places!
I would like to say two things spontaneously about this. Empty places: do not fill these places with people who were not called by the Lord, do not take them from anywhere; examine well a youth’s vocation, its authenticity, if he comes to seek refuge or because he hears the Lord’s call. To receive them only because we are in need, dear Bishops, is a mortgage for the Church! — a mortgage. Second: do not leave them alone. Closeness: the Bishops close to the priests; the Bishops close to the priests. How many times I have heard the laments of priests . . . I have said this so many times – perhaps you heard it –: I called the Bishop; he wasn’t there, and the secretary told me he wasn’t there; I asked for an appointment: it’s full for three months . . .” And that priest remains detached from the Bishop. But if you, Bishop, know that in the list of calls that your secretary leaves you a priest has called and you have a full agenda, that same day, in the evening or the following day – not more – call him on the telephone and tell him how things are, evaluate it together, if it’s urgent, not urgent . . . But what is important is that that priest feels he has a father, a close father. Closeness, closeness to priests. A diocese cannot be governed without closeness; a priest cannot grow and be sanctified without the paternal closeness of the Bishop.
I always rejoice when I meet young priests, because in them I see the youth of the Church. Therefore, thinking of the new Ratio, which speaks of the priest as a missionary disciple in permanent formation (Cf. n. 3), I wish to stress, above all for young priests, some important attitudes: pray without tiring, walk always and share with the heart.
Pray without tiring, because we can only be “fishers of men” if we first realize that we have been “caught” by the Lord’s tenderness. Our vocation began when, having abandoned the land of our individualism and our personal projects, we are journeying for the “holy journey,” giving ourselves over to that Love that sought us in the night and to that Voice that made our heart vibrate. Thus, as the fishermen of Galilee, we have left our nets to grip those that the Master has given us. If we do not remain closely bound to Him, our fishing will not be successful. I recommend: pray always!
During the years of formation, the schedules of our days were scanned so as to leave the necessary time for prayer; afterwards, one cannot have everything so systematized – life is something else – everything organized, from the moment that one is immersed in the rhythms, sometimes pressing of the pastoral commitments. However, precisely what we acquired in the time of the Seminary – living the harmony between prayer, work and rest – is a precious resource to address the apostolic labours. Every day we have need of pausing, of listening to the Word of God and of staying before the Tabernacle. “But I try, but . . . I fall asleep before the Tabernacle.” Fall asleep also, which the Lord likes, but stay there, before Him. And to take care also to listen to our body, which is a good doctor, and which lets us know when exhaustion has surpassed its limits. Prayer, the relationship with God, the care of the spiritual life give soul to the ministry, and the ministry, so to speak, gives body to the spiritual life: because the priest sanctifies himself and others in the concrete exercise of the ministry, especially preaching and celebrating the Sacraments.
Second: walk always, because a priest has never “arrived.” He always remains a disciple, pilgrim on the roads of the Gospel and of life, overlooking the threshold of the mystery of God and of the sacred land of the people entrusted to him. He will never be able to feel satisfied or extinguish the healthy restlessness that makes him extend his hands to the Lord to let himself be formed and filled. Therefore, update oneself always and remain open to God’s surprises! In this openness to the new, young priests can be creative in evangelization, frequenting with discernment the new places of communication, where to find faces, stories and questions of persons, developing the capacity of sociality, of relation and of proclamation of the faith. In the same way, they can “be in the network” with other presbyters and impede the woodworm of self-reference from braking the regenerating experience of priestly communion. In fact, in every realm of priestly life it is important to progress in faith, in love and in pastoral charity, without becoming rigid in one’s acquisitions or being fixed in one’s schemes.
Finally, share with the heart, because presbyterial life is not a bureaucratic office or an ensemble of religious or liturgical practices to attend. We have spoken so much of the “bureaucrat priest,” who is “cleric of the State” and not Pastor of the people. To be priests is to stake one’s life for the Lord and for brothers, bearing in one’s own flesh the joys and anguishes of the People, spending time and listening to cure the wounds of others and offering all the tenderness of the Father. From the memory of their personal experience – when they were in the Oratory, cultivating dreams and friendships animated by youthful love for the Lord –, new priests have the great opportunity to live this sharing with young men and boys. It is about being in their midst, — also closeness here! — not only as a friend among others, but as one who is able to share their life with his heart, to listen to their questions and to participate concretely in the different vicissitudes of their life. Young people do not need a professional of the sacred or a hero that, from above and from the outside, responds to their questions; they are attracted, rather, by one who is able to be sincerely involved in their life, helping them with respect and listening to them with love. It is about having a heart full of passion and compassion, especially towards young people.
Pray without tiring, walk always and share with the heart means to live the priestly life looking up and thinking big. It is not an easy task, but one can put full trust in the Lord, because He always precedes us on the way. May Mary Most Holy, who prayed without tiring, walked behind her Son and shared her life to the end under the cross, guide us and intercede for us. And, please, pray for me![Original text: Italian] [Working Translation by Virginia M. Forrester]