What is Pope Francis’ vision for the priesthood – how are our priests and future priests to serve their people most faithfully and fruitfully? Here are seven key concerns which have emerged from both Pope Francis’s spoken words and also the witness of his own priestly ministry.
1) The strength of a priest depends on his relationship with Christ. Pope Francis has said that the touchstone of how deeply a priest is living his vocation is the extent to which he seeks Christ in his daily life. In a typically direct question, Pope Francis asked a gathering of Rome’s priests at the beginning of Lent, “At night, how does your day end? With God, or with television?” At the heart of any priest’s ministry must be a living relationship with Christ, so that the priest sees as Christ sees and loves as he loves. It took the disciples time to really “become Christ” to others so this is not a given at ordination. For this to happen, the priest needs to continue to grow in union with Christ through prayer and intimacy.
2) Just as he must be close to Christ so the priest must be close to the people he serves. In his first Chrism Mass homily, Pope Francis famously spoke of how priests must be “shepherds living with the ‘smell of the sheep’” If priests truly are to be pastors rather than administrators they need to “go out to meet the people,” especially the lost sheep. The pastor who stays behind his computer in the presbytery, he declared, is not an “authentic pastor.” Pope Francis praised one priest for knowing his parishioners so well that he knew not only their names, but also their pets’ names! In an age in which so many priests, bishops and curial officials are enslaved by administrative tasks, Pope Francis is summoning them to reprioritize toward the Church’s evangelical mission.
3) As Pope Francis emphasized in the homily of his inaugural Mass, a priest’s authority must be linked to service, especially to the care and protection of the poorest, weakest, the least important and most easily forgotten. This means that priests have to leave their comfort zone and have "real contact with the poor and the marginalised.” Francis, who was known as the "slum bishop" in Argentina because of his work among the poor, has said reaching out to those on the margins of society was "the most concrete way of imitating Jesus". His own first visits after moving to the Vatican were to a jail for juveniles and to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa to pay tribute to impoverished immigrants who have died trying to get to Europe.
4) The priest must be a minister of mercy. Pope Francis told a group of ten newly-ordained priests that the most important advice he could give them was simply, “Be merciful.” His motto Miserando Atque Eligendo (“Chosen Through the Eyes of Mercy”) highlights that his own vocation was born in an experience of God’s mercy, when as a 16-year-old boy he went to confession on the feast of the St Matthew, the great convert. Pope Francis’ reminder in his first Angelus address that God never tires of forgiving us is a clear call to priests never to tire in faithfully dispensing that mercy, both sacramentally and in their daily living.
5) The priest is called to a simplicity of life. Diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, but commit themselves to a simple lifestyle. Pope Francis has repeatedly criticised priests who give in to vanity and worldly ambition. During his years in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio’s example of living in a small apartment rather than an episcopal palace, taking public transportation rather than a car with a driver and cooking for himself (all of which we see mirrored in his new life as Pope) was a clear challenge to his fellow priests to examine the sincerity and authenticity of their own spiritual poverty.
6) The priest must be a model of integrity. There can be no place in priests for a haughty clericalism, any kind of abuse of their position or a concern to climb the ecclesial career ladder – Pope Francis is calling and requiring priests to understand that their authority derives not from worldly power but from personal integrity and humility in imitation of Christ. Paying his pre-conclave bill at the priests’ residence personally immediately after his election was not just a nice gesture indicating a total absence of a sense of privilege, but it was a real sign that no priest should consider himself exempt from the demands of ordinary accountability. Otherwise priests can “become wolves not shepherds”.
7) Finally the priest is to be a source of blessing for his people. The anointing which he receives at his ordination is not meant just for himself – it is to flow through him to those he serves. As Pope Francis said at his first Chrism Mass, “A good priest can be recognised by the way his people are anointed... when our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news.” This was also very much the theme of his second Chrism Mass homily – the priest is “anointed with the oil of gladness so as to anoint others with the oil of gladness.” In his preaching, in his prayer, through being truly present to his flock in the realities of their everyday lives, the priest is to help them “feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, Christ, has come to them through the priest.”
Here are words for us all from Pope Francis:
“Dear lay faithful, be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may be always be shepherds according to God’s heart. And pray for those whom God is calling to be priests that they may respond to this call with humility and joy.
Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his spirit in our hearts so that this anointing may spread to everyone, especially to those “outskirts” where our lay faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it. May our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us”