You may remember that the Pope had some trenchant words of advice when he spoke to the Roman Curia at the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings, warning them against various malaises, such as “vainglory” and “spiritual Alzheimer’s”. This Sunday he was doing the something similar, though this time to a group of 19 new priests that he had ordained for the diocese of Rome. He is the bishop of the city, and they are his priests, so I am sure they took his words to heart, amid the festivities of their ordination day.
The Pope, according to reports, homed in on three failings of the clergy, which I am sure are not just confined to the newly ordained.
The first was the tendency to preach boring homilies. Indeed, this, as we all know, is something of a recurring fault in the clergy. We have all sat through boring homilies, which have gone on far too long, and which we have desperately prayed would simply end there and then. “If you have not struck oil within five minutes, stop boring,” was the good advice once given to me. I myself have only heard the current Holy Father preach once, and that was at the Beatification of Pope Paul VI, and it seemed to go on for a lot longer than five minutes and was very hard to follow. But I suppose if you are the Pope people expect you to preach at length.
The Holy Father advises that the homily should be a matter of heart speaking to heart. This recalls the great motto of the Blessed Cardinal Newman, and also reminds me of what Alice Thomas Ellis once said to me in a different context: always be sincere. It is so much better to speak from the heart than, for example, someone else’s sermon notes, or from a text book of prepared homilies. And if one has nothing to say? Well, then, silence could be what everyone needs to hear. I suppose the Pope wants to warn these young priests not to be bores, as they are all fresh from seminary, where they have been crammed full of theology by the Jesuits of the Gregorian, among others. If they regurgitate that, they are guaranteed to bore the pants off everyone.
The second fault the Pope castigates is vanity. He cautions the newly ordained not to be “peacocks”, and not to live for their own pleasure. Here, I have to say, I rather part company with the Pope’s words. As newly ordained priests in Italy and in Rome, these young men will be the centre of much attention. Most of them will have mothers and aunts and sisters and cousins who will make a big fuss of them, I hope, and look after them. Those who do not have family nearby, and some of them may well be from abroad, will, I hope find an affectionate adopted family in their parishioners, who will show their care for them by giving them lots of lovely things to eat. This is only natural. Priests, particularly young ones, need human contact: they need to be grounded by and in human affection. These young priest may well be surrounded by a degree of flattery, but I am sure they know how to take that in their stride. Moreover, lots of people will give them various articles to wear, and wear them they should. The people like to see their priests well turned out. Can any of us truthfully say we prefer a scruffy priest to someone like, let us say, Mgr Georg Gaenswein? The Pope, of course, may be thinking of his Jesuit training: but these are secular priests, and they do need to have friendships. The cold formality of the Jesuit life is not meant for all.
The third fault the Pope identifies is hypocrisy. “Words without example are empty words,” he counsels, adding: “They are ideas that do not reach the heart, and may even cause injury.” Quite so. This severe admonition could be applied to many, especially, one feels, our politicians. But to newly ordained priests? I can remember, back in the day, being admonished by rather severe old men in a similar manner. With age comes wisdom, I suppose, but at the same time, ought we not to listen to the young, and especially the younger clergy? They may indeed have something to tell us all, and they may be more in touch with the younger generation and contemporary culture.
One thing we must not overlook. The diocese of Rome has 19 new priests. That is wonderful news. Congratulations to all the new Fathers! May they have a long and fruitful ministry among God’s people. I am sure the people of Rome will be grateful to them, and grateful for all the good work they will do over their lives. Ad multos annos, as we say! 19 new priests! Lucky Rome, or, in the language of God – o felix Roma!
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