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 practice “pastoral cruelty.” The Holy See Press Office, always at the ready to explain what it is that Pope Francis intended to say, 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 criticizing. Examine our conscience on the matter. Much of what the Holy Father criticizes in priests deserves to be criticized — distance from our people, the seeking of comfort, a hardened heart. If he takes delight in pointing out 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 like, well, Pope Francis does. “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 daily homily with a survey of those who fail to live up to the Gospel. It’s unusual for us, as we have long been inclined to avoid anything that might come off as a harsh judgment. We don’t have to be as judgmental or harsh as Pope Francis usually is, but we have something to learn from him about correcting the faults of people in our care.
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.
In honour then of the 65th anniversary of ordination of the pope emeritus, permit me then to provide that service — an encouraging passage from Benedict XVI, taken from his homily on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 2011, the 60th anniversary of his ordination:
“Non iam dicam servos, sed amicos” — “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (cf. Jn 15:15).
“Sixty years on from the day of my priestly ordination, I hear once again deep within me these words of Jesus that were addressed to us new priests at the end of the ordination ceremony by the archbishop, Cardinal Faulhaber, in his slightly frail yet firm voice,” Benedict said. “According to the liturgical practice of that time, these words conferred on the newly ordained priests the authority to forgive sins. ‘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.
“I know that behind these words lies His suffering for us and on account of us,” he continued. “I know that forgiveness comes at a price: in His Passion He went deep down into the sordid darkness of our sins. He went down into the night of our guilt, for only thus can it be transformed. And by giving me authority to forgive sins, He lets me look down into the abyss of man, into the immensity of His suffering for us men, and this enables me to sense the immensity of His love. He confides in me: ‘No longer servants, but friends’. He entrusts to me the words of consecration in the Eucharist. He trusts me to proclaim His word, to explain it aright and to bring it to the people of today. He entrusts Himself to me. ‘You are no longer servants, but friends’: these words bring great inner joy, but at the same time, they are so awe-inspiring that one can feel daunted as the decades go by amid so many experiences of one’s own frailty and his inexhaustible goodness.
“No longer servants, but friends: this saying contains within itself the entire program 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).
Thank you Father Benedict! Ad multos annos!
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)