In a message yesterday, Pope Francis criticised placing so much importance on Church programs that the essential teachings of the faith are lost. The pope also said a priest’s agreement with such initiatives should not be the measure of his ministry.
“The worship of initiatives is replacing the essential: one faith, one baptism, one God the Father of all. Adherence to initiatives risks becoming the yardstick of communion,” the pope said, in a message read aloud to the priests of the Diocese of Rome yesterday.
Pope Francis was scheduled to deliver the speech in person at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, but decided to remain close to the Vatican after feeling unwell, the Holy See spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said Thursday.
Instead, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, read the speech on the pope’s behalf.
In his speech, Francis outlined the different reasons why priests may become “embittered” in their ministry, noting that his observations came from many conversations with priests and are not only his opinion.
Today, he said, there seems to be a “general atmosphere” of “widespread mediocrity” – and not only in the priesthood.
“The fact remains that much bitterness in the life of a priest” is rooted in the omissions of his bishop, Francis said in a footnote of the speech.
Priests risk losing their ministry as pastors, their role as teachers of the faith, he said, as they become “suffocated” by management problems and personnel emergencies.
But, he added, “who is the catechist of that permanent disciple who is the priest? The bishop of course!”
Francis said it could be argued that priests do not usually want to be educated by bishops, but even if this is true, “it is not a good reason” for bishops to give up the “munus docendi.”
“The holy people of God have the right to have priests who teach them to believe; and deacons and priests have the right to have a bishop who teaches them in turn to believe and hope in the One Master, the Way, the Truth and the Life, who inflames their faith,” he said.
The pope also said that, as a priest, he would want his bishop to help him believe, not just make him happy, and lamented that often bishops end up only attending to their priests in times of crisis, and not making the time to listen to them outside of emergencies.
In his speech, Pope Francis also argued that another cause of bitterness in the priesthood is problems between priests.
He pointed to the financial and sexual scandals of recent years as having caused suspicion among priests and hindered meaningful bonds. “There is more ‘community,’ but less communion,” the pope said.
Francis also said that with these scandals, the devil tempts people to have a Donatist vision of the Church. Donatism is a heresy from the 4th to 6th centuries which argued that Catholic priests had to be without sin or fault for the sacraments they administer to be valid.
“We have false conceptions of the militant Church, in a sort of ecclesiological puritanism,” he said.
“The question we ask ourselves when we meet a new brother priest emerges silently: ‘Who do I really have before me? Can I trust him?’”
Prayer is important to combat this, he said.
The pope also warned priests against an “individualized conscience” – a feeling of being “more special, powerful, gifted” and therefore needing to start every new parish assignment with a “clean slate,” instead of building on the good already there from the previous pastor.
Cautioning against the risk of isolation, Francis advised priests to find an old and astute priest to be a spiritual father.