Priests are not “mushrooms” that magically sprout at ordination, but they have a history, a community and a family that both they and their superiors must keep in mind, Pope Francis said.
“On the day of their ordination, I always say to the new priests: ‘Do not forget where you came from; from the flock. Do not forget your mother and your grandmother,’” the pope said on 20 November. “This means that you cannot be a priest believing that you were created in a laboratory. No, it begins in the family with the tradition of the faith and all the experiences of the family.”
The pope addressed a group of priests and bishops who were participating in a conference sponsored by the Congregation for Clergy to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s decrees on priestly formation and on the priestly ministry and life.
While the seeds planted in the church by the two decrees have grown, the pope said there is “still work to be done” and that proper formation of those who wish to enter the priesthood “must be promoted and cared for” in the seminary.
“A priest’s path to holiness begins in the seminary,” the pope said.
Priests are not “‘mushrooms’ that suddenly sprout in the cathedral on the day of ordination,” the pope said, which is why it is essential for priests and seminary staff to keep in mind the path that leads to a vocation, especially family life.
Recalling a young Jesuit priest who contemplated leaving the priesthood, the pope said he advised him to speak to his mother.
When he came back, Pope Francis said, “his mother had given him two spiritual slaps. She put him in his place and he went forward because he returned to his roots. That is why it is important to not cut the roots from which you came”.
Priests, the pope continued, also must be mindful of their duty to serve others and remember that “our own sanctification is closely linked to that of the people”. He also stressed that priests must learn to rejoice and not become rigid authoritarians with the flock entrusted to them.
“I tell you sincerely: I am afraid of rigid (priests). I am afraid,” the pope said. “Rigid priests, keep them far away, they bite! The words of St Ambrose come to mind: ‘Where there is mercy, there is the spirit of God. Where there is rigidity, there are only his ministers.’ And a minister without the Lord becomes rigid. This is a danger for the people of God. Be pastors, not officials.”
Pope Francis also encouraged them to be merciful in administering the sacrament of reconciliation, as well as reminding them that apostolic zeal often means they will not have a “private moment” to themselves.
Speaking off-the-cuff, the pope addressed the bishops present, telling them that they must be close to their priests and must always attend to their needs with fatherly care. If their episcopal duties keep them from meeting with a priest, Pope Francis urged them to “at least, take down his number and call him”.
A bishop must spend more time in his diocese and less time travelling, the pope said. “If you don’t feel like remaining in a diocese, then resign.”
Regarding seminary formation, the pope stressed the need for a vocational discernment that looks after not only the spiritual health of aspiring priests, but also their physical and psychological health. Recalling his time as the director of novices, the pope warned that those in charge of priestly formation must be mindful of issues that may not be evident at first, but tend to manifest “when they feel secure”.
“It is interesting: When a young man is too rigid, too fundamentalist, I do not trust them,” he said. “Behind him there is something that maybe not even he knows.”