Pope Francis delivered an address to priests of the Rome diocese on Thursday morning, who were gathered for a penitential service at the beginning of Lent. The Pope focused on bitterness in priestly life, and three of its causes: problems with faith, problems with the bishop, and problems with brother priests.
“Looking our bitternesses in the eye and facing them straight on,” wrote Pope Francis in his prepared remarks, which Rome’s cardinal vicar, Angelo De Donatis, read to churchmen gathered in Rome’s cathedral archbasilica of St John Lateran, “allows us to make contact with our humanity, with our blessed humanity.”
Cardinal De Donatis read the speech in Pope Francis’s stead, as the Holy Father was feeling under the weather and preferred to remain in the Vatican. Suffering from a “light indisposition” was how the director of the Holy See’s press office, Matteo Bruni described the Pope’s condition.
Bruni stressed to the Catholic Herald that Pope Francis otherwise kept to his schedule. “Other commitments continued throughout the day,” he said.
Billing his remarks as “a reflection ad intra”, meaning offered primarily as one priest to others and tailored to his particular audience rather than as remarks prepared for a general public, Pope Francis explained that his reflections were the fruit of his listening to seminarians and priests from different Italian dioceses, “and cannot or should not refer to any specific situation.” He also stressed that most of the priests he knows, “are happy with their lives and consider this bitterness as part of normal living, without drama.”
Pope Francis went on to say that he was reporting what he had heard from those seminarians and priests, rather than offering his own opinion.
“Bitterness, which is not a fault,” wrote Pope Francis in the section devoted to problems with faith, “must be accepted.” He said bitterness can even be “a great opportunity,” and is “perhaps also healthy,” insofar as it can serve as a sort of interior warning klaxon. “There is a sadness that can lead us to God,” he wrote. “Let us welcome it, let us not be angry with ourselves, it may be that the time is right.”
It was in reflecting on troubles with the bishop — whoever he is — that Francis offered a reflection on the Rule of St Benedict, in which the great saint of Nursia recommends that the abbot consult the entire community, including the youngest members, when he is faced with an important question.
“Then,” Pope Francis wrote, “[St Benedict] continues by reiterating that the final decision is up to the abbot alone, that everything must be disposed with prudence and equity,” or fairness. The emphasis was in the text. “For Benedict, there is no question of authority,” Francis wrote. “Quite the opposite: it is the abbot who answers before God for the running of the monastery; however it is said that in deciding he must be ‘prudent and fair’.”
Francis went on to consider that, while the first word — prudence — is one well known, “Equity,” or fairness, “is less usual,” He said the essence of equity is taking everyone’s opinion into account and safeguarding the “representativity of the flock,” without playing favourites.
“The great temptation of the shepherd is to surround himself with ‘his own’,” Pope Francis then offered, “with those ‘close’ [to him],” after the manner of an inner circle. “[A]nd so, unfortunately,” Francis continued, “real competence is supplanted by a certain presumed loyalty, no longer distinguishing between those who please and those who advise selflessly.”
After noting the great suffering that such attitudes and behaviours on the part of the bishop cause to the community, Pope Francis cited — and quoted directly — the Code of Canon Law. “[Canon 212§3] recalls that the faithful “have the right, and indeed sometimes even the duty, to express their thoughts to the sacred Pastors on what concerns the good of the Church,” Francis wrote.
“In this time of precariousness and widespread fragility,” he continued, “the solution seems to be that of authoritarianism. (In the political sphere this is evident.) The real cure, however — as Saint Benedict advises — lies in equity, not in uniformity.”
In discussing the bitterness that arises from troubles among the presbyterate, Pope Francis acknowledged the difficulties of the present crisis in the Church.
“The priest in recent years has suffered the blows of scandals [both] financial and sexual,” Francis wrote. “Suspicion has drastically made relationships colder and more formal; one no longer enjoys the gifts of others, on the contrary, it seems that there is a mission to destroy, to minimize, make people suspect.”
Francis wrote that the devil is at work in the business.
“The Evil One tempts us by pushing us towards a ‘Donatist’ vision of the Church,” Pope Francis considered, with the sinless counted among her members and those who have made mistakes expelled. “We have false conceptions of the Church militant,” he said, “a sort of ecclesiological Puritanism. The Bride of Christ is and remains the field in which wheat and tares grow up to Parousia,” i.e. the Second Coming.
“Whoever has not made this evangelical vision of reality his own,” the Pope continued, “exposes himself to unspeakable and useless bitterness.” He went on to write that the public and publicised sins of the clergy have made everyone more cautious and less willing to forge meaningful bonds, especially in order to share the faith.
Pope Francis suggested that the danger for priests is found in the tendency of these circumstances to lead to isolation: from grace, especially the spiritual grounding in the Communion of Saints; from history, particularly the sense of promise in eternal reward, and from the sense of participation in a project priests did not begin and cannot hope to complete; from others, precisely from those best able to help them bear the burdens of their calling and their state.
“The holy faithful people of God know us better than anyone else,” Pope Francis told the priests of Rome, saying also that the faithful are “very respectful” and that they know how to accompany their shepherds and care for them.
“They know our bitterness and also pray to the Lord for us,” Pope Francis wrote. He asked those hearing his words to add their prayers to those of the faithful, asking God to turn priests’ bitterness into fresh water for his people — an allusion to the episode in Exodus 15, to which he had earlier referred, in which Moses called on the Lord at Mara to turn brackish water sweet for His people.
“Let us ask the Lord to give us the ability to recognize what it is that embitters us,” Pope Francis suggested, “and thus let us transform ourselves, and be persons reconciled, who reconcile, persons at peace, who bring others to peace, persons full of hope, who instill hope.
“The people of God,” Pope Francis concluded, “expect us to be teachers of spirit capable of indicating the wells of fresh water in the middle of the desert.”