Prelates and priests look on as Pope Francis leads a meeting with priests in Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican March 6. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

Pope’s ministers of mercy

  • March 13, 2014

I was a little nervous about Pope Francis’ meeting with the clergy of Rome last week. As a seminarian and a new priest, I always looked forward to Blessed John Paul’s annual Holy Thursday letter to priests. To my disappointment, Pope Benedict XVI did not continue that tradition, but replaced it with an annual encounter with the clergy of Rome in the first days of Lent. Pope Francis opted this year to continue Benedict’s practice, and so met with the parish priests of Rome last week.

One of the undercurrents, not often reported, of Francis’ first year has been his uneven relationship with priests. While bishops and priests are enthusiastic about Francis’ zeal for missionary discipleship, in private there is a frequently voiced concern about the Holy Father’s comments about priests. It arises from his daily homilies and interviews, in which his remarks about the parish clergy are almost always critical, inveighing against the lazy priest in his rectory, unmoved by the suffering of the afflicted in need of mercy, reduced to a functionary who has become an obstacle rather than a conduit of God’s grace.

“At one clergy gathering, a priest complained that Pope Francis has mentioned on three occasions priests who turn the confessional into a ‘torture chamber,’ as if, the priest said, there’s a worldwide ‘society of sacerdotal sacramental sadists,’ ” writes Fr. Roger Landry, a priest who regularly preaches retreats and conferences for priests which enthusiastically present the message and model of Pope Francis. “Others have noted that it’s been tough to hear the Pope’s frequent censures of priests who are ‘greasy’ rather than anointed, clerical rather than evangelical, spiritually worldly rather than filled with the Holy Spirit, and have begun to wonder whether the Pope’s emphasis indicated that he believes the majority of priests fall into the former categories.”

So when it came time for his meeting with the Roman clergy, I wondered if the Holy Father would be critical again. Apparently Pope Francis knew that at least some priests were thinking that.

“I keep in mind that some of you have phoned me, written me a letter, and then I have spoken with you by phone,” Pope Francis said. “Why do you have it in for priests? Because they said that I beat the priests! I don’t want to give beatings here…”

At the end of his address, he added some words of praise.

“If you think about it, you surely have known many, many (priests who have given good witness), because the priests of Italy are very good,” Francis said. “They are good. I believe that if Italy is still so strong it is not as much because of us bishops, but because of our parish priests, because of the priests! It’s true, this is true! This is not a bit of incense to comfort you, I truly feel it.”

It indicates the Holy Father’s own assessment of the extent of the problem that after praising priests, he went still further to insist that he was being sincere, and not just blowing incense up their cassocks.

And then the Holy Father spoke about a concrete example from Argentina. He recalled the death of an outstanding priest in Buenos Aires, who had served as confessor to many priests, including Jorge Mario Bergoglio himself.

“I looked at the rosary in his hand,” the Holy Father related about visiting the body. “Immediately that thief who is in each of us came out and while I arranged the flowers, I picked up the cross of the rosary and with a little effort, I pulled it off. I looked at him and said, ‘Give me half of your mercy.’ ”

To this day, Pope Francis keeps that small crucifix with him as a reminder to be generous and merciful, not only in the confessional, but in his thoughts and judgments.

It brought to mind the encouragement I received from a confessor just before I was ordained. Studying in Rome, I used to confess to my spiritual director at our meetings every other week, and then would go down to St. Peter’s on the alternate weeks to avail myself of the many confessors regularly available there. Over four years there was one priest whom I confessed to frequently, but never knew his name and, given the hundreds of confessions he heard every week, had no reason to think that he knew me.

Just before leaving Rome to return to Kingston, I mentioned to him in confession that I would soon be ordained. He asked if I would mind speaking to him after confession, so I came out of the confessional and he told me that he had a gift for me. He took a small metal crucifix that was hanging in his own confessional and gave it to me.

I was speechless. I was grateful for the gift of course, but even more that — with maximum discretion — this kindly confessor had been spiritually accompanying me throughout my formation. I still have the crucifix of course, and it inspires me in my own ministry of reconciliation.

The Holy Father spoke to the Roman priests about being ministers of mercy. We learn to be so from the good priests who were merciful with us.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:

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