Pope Francis has again sharply denounced the culture of clericalism among priests in the Catholic church, calling it "one of the greatest deformations" that must be confronted by the global faith community and saying it helps "diminish and undervalue" the contributions that laypeople make.
The pontiff has also strongly reaffirmed the right of laypeople to make decisions in their lives, saying that priests must trust that the Holy Spirit is working in them and that the Spirit "is not only the 'property' of the ecclesial hierarchy."
In a letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet in his role as the head of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, released by the Vatican Tuesday, Francis says he wants to speak to the members of the commission about how to better serve what he terms "the Holy Faithful People of God."
"Evoking the Holy Faithful People of God is to evoke that horizon which we are invited to look at and reflect upon," states the pope. "It is the Holy Faithful People of God that as pastors we are continually invited to look to, to protect, to accompany, to sustain and to serve."
"A father cannot imagine himself without his children," he continues. "He can be a great worker, professional, spouse, friend but what makes him a father has a face: they are his children."
"The same happens to us," states Francis. "We are pastors. A pastor cannot imagine himself without his flock, which he is called to serve. The pastor is a pastor of a people, and he serves the people from amongst them."
The pontiff then reflects on the role of baptism.
"Looking to the People of God is to remember that we all made our entrance into the Church as laypeople," states Francis. "The first sacrament ... is baptism."
"The first and fundamental consecration sinks its roots in our baptism," continues the pope. "No one is baptized a priest or a bishop. They baptized us as laypeople and it is the indelible sign that no one can ever wipe away."
"It is good for us to remember that the Church is not an elite of priests, of consecrated people, of bishops -- but that everyone forms the Holy Faithful People of God," states Francis.
The pontiff then says that he cannot reflect on the role of laypeople in the church "ignoring one of the greatest deformations that Latin America must confront, and to which I ask you to give special attention: clericalism."
"This attitude not only cancels out the personality of Christians, but tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people," states Francis.
"Clericalism brings about a homogenization of the layperson, treating as 'mandatory' limits to his or her diverse initiatives and efforts, and I would dare to say, the audacity necessary to bring the Good News of the Gospel to all places of social and overall political activity," he continues.
"Clericalism, far from giving impulse to diverse contributions and proposals, turns off, little by little, the prophetic fire from which the entire Church is called to give testimony in the heart of its peoples," says Francis. "Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belongs to all the people of God and not only an elect or illuminated few."
The pontiff then quotes from Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, which praised the role laypeople have in pastoral work.
"Pope Paul VI uses an expression that I hold to be fundamental: the faith of our people -- their orientations, their work, their desires, their yearnings, when they are listened to and directed, end up manifesting a genuine presence of the Spirit," states Francis.
"We trust in our people, in their memory and in their 'sense of smell,' we trust that the Holy Spirit works in and with them, and that this Spirit is not only the 'property' of the ecclesial hierarchy," he continues.
"What does it mean for us pastors the fact that laypeople are working in public life?" asks Francis. "It means finding the way to encourage them, to accompany them and to stimulate all the attempts and efforts they are already doing to keep alive hope and faith in a world full of contradictions, especially for the poorest."
"It is not the pastor who must say to the layperson that which they must do and say; he or she knows more and better than us," says the pope. "It is not for the pastor to decide what the faithful must say in their diverse settings."
Francis also says that priests often "fall into the temptation to think that the committed layperson is he or she who works for the Church and or in things of the parish or the diocese, and we have reflected little on how to accompany a baptized person in their public and daily life."
"Without realizing it, we have created a lay elite believing that only those who work in things of priests are committed laypersons; and we have forgotten, neglected the believer that many times has their hope burned away in the daily fight to live the faith," states the pontiff.
"These are situations that clericalism cannot see, because it is more worried with dominating spaces than creating processes," he continues. "We must then recognize the layperson for their reality, for their identity."
"It is illogical, and even impossible, to think that we as pastors should have the monopoly on solutions for the many challenges that modern life presents to us," states Francis. "On the contrary, we must remain at the side of our people, accompanying them in their work and stimulating that capable imagination of responding to current problems."
"Our role, our joy, the joy of the pastor, is truly in the helping and the stimulating, "he continues. "Laypeople are a part of the Holy Faithful People of God and therefore are protagonists of the Church and the world; we are called to serve them, not them to serve us."
The pontifical commission for Latin America is a part of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, which Ouellet also leads.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]