Opinion & Features

The words all priests need to hear

Benedict XVI (AP)

It’s become something of a routine now. Pope Francis delivers a spontaneous lambasting of priests who do this or that which he disapproves of, and priests discuss what we should make of it all. As it happens often enough, I have a three-part response, which I most recently had to employ after the latest rhetorical assault in which the Holy Father spoke of some priests as “animals” who practise “pastoral cruelty”.

The Holy See press office, always at the ready to adjust what Pope Francis said, helpfully explained that it was not that the Pope thought some priests were “animals” but rather treated their people “like animals”. Which perhaps is a bit better. At any rate, the three-step process works just as well whether examining the original remarks of the Holy Father or the amended ones issued afterwards.

Step 1: lay aside the language and consider the behaviour the Holy Father is criticising. Examine our conscience on the matter. Much of what the Holy Father criticises in priests deserves to be criticised – distance from our people, an unsympathetic heart towards the poor, the seeking of comfort. If he appears to give disproportionate attention to our failings, well, three years should have taught us to tolerate that. Every priest has to develop something of a thick skin when it comes to criticism, including criticism from the Pope.

Step 2: read the Gospel passages where Jesus speaks in the manner Pope Francis prefers. “Brood of vipers”, “hypocrites” and “whited sepulchres” were all addressed to the clergy of the day. Pope Francis, of course, does not have the balance in his preaching and commentary that Jesus did, but that applies to every one of us. Jesus spoke harshly on occasion. Pope Francis speaks harshly almost daily, usually beginning his homily with condemnations of those who fail to live up to the Gospel. It’s unusual to be sure, as we have long been inclined to avoid saying anything that might come off as a harsh judgment. We don’t have to be as judgmental or harsh as Pope Francis is, but we have something to learn from him about speaking like Jesus, not restricting ourselves only to biblical language that the Anglican liturgy is pleased to style the “comfortable words”.

Step 3: if you need encouragement – and all of us priests do – go back and read Benedict XVI, a gentle soul who wrote beautifully on the priesthood. It was happy news, then, that at the ceremony honouring the 65th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s priestly ordination last week, a new collection of his writings on the priesthood was presented. At that same ceremony, Benedict himself gave a luminous reminder of his own mastery of off-the-cuff remarks, which were both gentle and profound.

Herewith, then, an example of Ratzinger/Benedict’s capacity to encourage priests. His dominant memory of his ordination, which he has spoken of on various occasions, was the final instruction from the bishop: “Non iam dicam servos, sed amicos” – “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (cf Jn 15:15).

“According to the liturgical practice of that time, these words conferred on the newly ordained priests the authority to forgive sins,” Benedict said five years ago on his 60th anniversary. “ ‘No longer servants, but friends’: at that moment I knew deep down that these words were no mere formality, nor were they simply a quotation from Scripture. I knew that, at that moment, the Lord himself was speaking to me in a very personal way.

“In baptism and confirmation he had already drawn us close to him, he had already received us into God’s family. But what was taking place now was something greater still. He calls me his friend. He welcomes me into the circle of those he had spoken to in the Upper Room, into the circle of those whom he knows in a very special way, and who thereby come to know him in a very special way. He grants me the almost frightening faculty to do what only he, the Son of God, can legitimately say and do: I forgive you your sins. He wants me – with his authority – to be able to speak, in his name (‘I’ forgive), words that are not merely words, but an action, changing something at the deepest level of being.

“No longer servants, but friends: this saying contains within itself the entire programme of a priestly life,” Benedict concluded. “What is friendship? Idem velle, idem nolle – wanting the same things, rejecting the same things: this was how it was expressed in antiquity. Friendship is a communion of thinking and willing. The Lord says the same thing to us most insistently: ‘I know my own and my own know me’ (Jn 10:14).”

Father Benedict, ad multos annos!

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine