In a surprise for the feast of St Jean-Marie Vianney, Pope Francis released a lengthy and substantive letter to priests. August 4th this year marked the 160th anniversary of the death of the Curé of Ars, declared the patron saint of parish priests by Pope Pius XI.
The letter draws heavily on Scripture and the Holy Father’s own teaching, and can be set in the context of the ongoing response of the Holy See to the abuse crisis. The Vatican summit last February was followed in short order by new legislation for the Vatican City State, and new canonical standards which greatly expand the obligation to report suspected cases of abuse of minors. The new measures also addressed abuses of power and manipulation of vulnerable adults, as well as mechanisms for investigating allegations against bishops.
But a canonical response can only be part of the solution. As the Holy Father has repeatedly stated, a conversion of heart is needed for would-be malefactors, and a conversion of culture is need in the Church to achieve justice, healing and prevention. With this papal letter, the Holy Father wishes to complement legal and bureaucratic measures with spiritual and fraternal support.
That is needed because priests are in need of support and healing. Betrayed by their brothers and subject to suspicion by the public, they often feel neglected by their bishops. In some places the abuse crisis has meant a grave deterioration in the relationship between priests and bishops, the former losing confidence that the latter have their best interests at heart.
The papal letter is heartfelt, and begins by acknowledging that priests need to find in their bishop a “elder brother and father”; the clear implication is that many bishops have failed to be that. Indeed, the letter goes some way to repairing the relationship between many priests and the Pope, whose harsh condemnatory rhetoric has often been aimed at priests whose thinking or pastoral practice he disapproves of. There is none of that harshness here.
Pope Francis instead writes to comfort the pain that many priests are feeling, to express his gratitude for their faithful service, to encourage them in the face of reasons for discouragement, and to exhort them to praise God in a Marian key.
The letter was reported by journalists close to the Holy Father as being entirely his own work, written in Spanish during his vacation in July. There is precedent for such things: in 2007 Benedict XVI return from his vacation with a completed draft of the encyclical Spe Salvi, which he had begun and completed without the usual preparatory assistance from the Curia.
The letter thus reveals Pope Francis’ vision of the priesthood. There are many typically lyrical passages with homey images – a pastor’s “heart that, like good wine, has not turned sour but become richer with age” or the “ladder of mercy” which descends to human weakness but ascends to divine perfection.
Before the Holy Father’s eyes is the priest who suffers, and accompanies his suffering people. While St John Paul II emphasized the heroic witness of the courageous priest and Benedict XVI the sanctifying role of the priest who reminds the world about God, Francis highlights the priest who is bruised and battered, and therefore is able to bear up the beaten down and the heavily burdened.
“We know that it is not easy to stand before the Lord and let his gaze examine our lives, heal our wounded hearts and cleanse our feet of the worldliness accumulated along the way, which now keeps us from moving forward,” Francis writes, encouraging priests to expose their weakness and insecurity in prayer. Notably, he mentions the importance of spiritual direction for this same task.
The priest in turn, aware of his own brokenness, is therefore able to “with trust and insistence ask the Lord to care for our weakness as individuals and as a people.”
Pope Francis has a heart for the suffering, and if his letter shows a tenderness toward priests heretofore less evident, it is because now he considers priests among the suffering and the wounded.
Though bishops are generally grateful to their priests, it often goes unsaid, and things unsaid over time become things unfelt. Priests will appreciate the acknowledgement, gratitude and encouragement.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca