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Francis and the priesthood: 10 years encouraging "Shepherds after the heart of Christ".

The tenth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis and the approach of March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph and the day on which we pray especially for vocations to the priesthood, provide the framework for recalling the keys in which Pope Francis situates the priestly ministry today.

Giovanni Tridente-March 13, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
pope francisco priests

The priest is one who has decided to follow and imitate Christ, living fully his own ministry-vocation, in a missionary dynamic in which he cares for the faithful entrusted to him, but without tiring of going out to look for those who for so many reasons have moved away "from home", or from the sheepfold to refer to an evangelical image. 

This is, in a few words, the synthesis of the thought and teaching on priestly ministry that Pope Francis has "dispensed" throughout the ten years of his pontificate, which will be completed this March 2023.

A "photograph" that can also be deduced from the Pontiff's personal example of how he has "incarnated" being a shepherd according to the heart of Christ, in the midst of a society full of demands and needs.

In order to show some salient features, we have chosen ten public interventions of the Holy Father - speeches, homilies, letters - each one corresponding to each year of his ministry as pastor of the universal Church, and another for the year just begun.

-2013. Departure to the peripheries

One of his first speeches could not be other than the homily of his first Chrism Mass as Bishop of Rome, before the priests of his diocese recalling the day of his ordination, on March 28, 2013. Here the Pope, referring to the readings proper to that celebration, explains that the priest is the one who carries "on his shoulders the people entrusted to him" and bears the names of these people -"our faithful people"- "engraved in his heart". Then there is the anointing oil, which is "for the poor, for prisoners, for the sick and for those who are sad and lonely". 

A clear overriding reference to the "Church on the way out" and the forgotten, and explicit reference to the "the last and the forgotten," and an explicit reference to the "peripheries", where sorrows and joys, anguish and hopes meet, and where the priest must bring the strength and redemptive efficacy of this "anointing". 

-2014. The time of mercy 

A merciful priestly heart is what Pope Francis presents the following year to the priests of his diocese, at the beginning of Lent, in a meeting in the Paul VI Hall on March 6, 2014. 

Here he recalls, referring to a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, that the place where Jesus most often found himself was "on the roads" and this allows us to grasp the depth of his heart, animated by compassion for the many tired and exhausted "crowds". The Pontiff went on to explain how the Church finds herself in the "time of mercy," a great intuition that his predecessor John Paul II had already conveyed to the People of God. 

For priests, this translates into "closeness" and closeness to those who are wounded in their own lives, demonstrating "bowels of mercy", for example, in the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation, but also in the attitude of welcoming, listening, counseling, absolving... Therefore, one must "have a heart moved" and this can only happen if one lives the mercy of God in the first person.

-2015. "Don't tire of forgiving".

"Don't get tired of forgiving. Be forgiving."as Jesus did. This is what Pope Francis asked the priests during his trip to Cuba in September 2015, in his homily during the prayer of Vespers with the consecrated in the cathedral of Havana.

He then recalled that it is still fundamental for a pastor to go in search of the least of these: the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick according to the "protocol of Matthew 25". 

And the privileged place to welcome these brothers and sisters is the confessional, without being neurotic or ill-disposed, but allowing the embrace of forgiveness to flow.

-2016. Aiming at the center of the person

Continuing with the theme of Mercy, in 2016 the Pope proclaimed a special Jubilee, and on the day dedicated to priests, on the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 3, he began by speaking of the need to "point the heart" of pastors "to the center of the person," to the strongest roots of life and to the core of affections, imitating the Good Shepherd, who "is mercy itself." 

To form this heart that imitates Christ, the Holy Father suggests three actions to priests: to go out of themselves to seek out those who no longer want to be part of the flock; to be able to listen to and accompany the steps of people with generous compassion and a spirit of inclusion; to rejoice in perceiving themselves as that channel of mercy that precisely brings people closer to God.

-2017. Experts in the art of discernment

Obviously, before becoming a priest, one goes through an intense formation process, and one of the aspects that Pope Francis is keen to emphasize, drawing also on his familiarity with the Ignatian and Jesuit tradition, is that of discernment.

An art that is learned above all by becoming familiar with listening to the Word of God, with a growing knowledge of one's inner world, affections and fears.

He explained this to the seminarians of the Campania seminary of Posillipo, gathered at the Vatican on May 6, 2017, reiterating the urgency of "fleeing the temptation to take refuge behind a rigid norm or behind the image of an idealized freedom." 

-2018. Prayer, obedience and freedom

In September 2018, Pope Francis addressed the priests of the Archdiocese of Valencia, accompanied by its Archbishop Antonio Cañizares Llovera. 

Taking advantage of the Jubilee of St. Vincent Ferrer celebrated that year, the Pontiff proposed three fundamental means for a priest to preserve friendship and union with Jesus Christ.

First of all, prayer, because a priest who deprives himself of it "does not get very far", and people realize this; then, obedience to preach the Gospel to every creature, that is, the proclamation of the Word, which must be done with joy without feeling that he is its master or even "entrepreneur". 

Finally, the freedom to know how to "go out" to meet one's brother, but also to know how to distance oneself from worldliness.

-2019. Two links: Jesus and the People

On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the death of the Holy Curé of Ars (John Mary Vianney), proposed by Pius XI in 1929 as patron of all parish priests, on August 4, 2019 Pope Francis wrote a fatherly letter to all the priests of the world, brothers who silently "leave everything" to dedicate themselves to the life of their communities. Brothers who work "in the trenches" and who. "they put their face" to care for and accompany his people. 

The purpose of the letter is explained by the Pope in the introduction: to be close, to give thanks and encouragement. It should not be forgotten that it comes at a time of strong criticism of priests, following the sad events of sexual abuse. 

After thanking them for their "perseverance", endurance, administration of the sacraments and passion for the people, the encouragement consisted in reiterating the importance of not neglecting "two bonds that constitute our identity", that which unites us to Jesus - "seek him, find him and enjoy the joy of letting yourselves be healed, accompanied and counseled" - and that which unites us to the people - "do not isolate yourselves from your people", "do not close yourselves in closed and elitist groups". 

-2020. Called to announce and prophesy the future

The following year Francis wrote a new letter, this time to the priests of the diocese of Rome, since, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was not possible to celebrate the Chrism Mass together.

Here, too, it is a matter of being close to and accompanying a community of brothers who, however, were severely tested by the consequences of health restrictions.

The Holy Father's approach is to point everything - after the many sufferings seen and experienced - to the Resurrection: "As a priestly community we are called to announce and prophesy the future", trying to establish "an ever new time: the time of the Lord". 

-2021. Dreaming of a Church entirely at service

"Dear brother priests, I invite you to always have great horizons, to dream, to dream of a Church entirely at your service, of a world that is more fraternal and in solidarity. And for this, as protagonists, you must make your contribution. Do not be afraid to dare, to risk, to go forward because you can do everything with Christ who gives you strength". These are the words that Pope Francis addressed in June 2021 to the priests of the Convitto San Luigi dei Francesia community located in the heart of Rome. 

Together with this incentive, which refers to all priests, the Pontiff reaffirmed the importance of "being apostles of joy," without forgetting a bit of healthy humor, well aware that this sensitivity has its source in remaining rooted in Christ.

-2022. The four proximities

In February of last year, on the initiative of the then Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a symposium on the theology of the priesthood was held at the Vatican, where Pope Francis received the participants in audience. 

Here, the Holy Father invited priests to "intercept the change" of the times we are living in, remaining anchored "to the living and wise Tradition of the Church, which can afford to set out on the journey without fear". 

As "concrete instruments" of this mission today, he spoke more extensively of the "four proximities" already mentioned. First of all, closeness to God, from whom to draw the necessary strength; closeness to the bishop, to consolidate the bonds of obedience and the capacity to listen; closeness among priests, to feel part of a great community; finally, closeness to the people of God, to "carry out the Lord's way.

-2023. True witnesses of God's love

The most recent intervention addressed to priests is the prayer meeting - together with deacons, consecrated persons and seminarians - that Pope Francis had with them in his trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in early February.

Here he returned, as he did at the beginning of his pontificate, to the reference to anointing and the oil "of consolation and hope", that the Lord gives to his people through his sacred ministers. The Holy Father then reiterated the importance of service - to serve the people and not to be used by them - conjuring up three particular temptations.

The first is "spiritual mediocrity," which can be overcome through the daily celebration of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. Then, the challenge of "worldly comfort" must be overcome by spreading models of sobriety and interior freedom.

Finally, the temptation to superficiality, learning to "enter into the heart of the Christian mystery, to deepen our doctrine, to study and meditate on the Word of God. The ultimate goal is to become, evidently, in the variety of the anxieties of our time, true "witnesses of God's love".

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