Francis outlines broad vision of human, compassionate priesthood

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has outlined a deeply human and compassionate model of the Catholic priesthood, telling priests around the world Thursday he understands they can become weary from their work but that they should exhaust themselves at the service of their people.

Speaking in an unusually lengthy homily in St. Peter's Basilica for the celebration of Holy Thursday, the pope said he thinks and prays often about the tiredness of priests but exhorted them to give themselves away for others.

"For us priests, the stories of our people are not a news report," the pope told the hundreds of cardinals, bishops and priests at the Mass.

"We know our people, we can guess what is happening in their hearts; and our [heart], in suffering with them, becomes frayed, is divided into a thousand pieces, and is moved and looks even eaten by the people," Francis continued, giving example of the priest who says: "Take, eat."

"This is the word that the priest of Jesus whispers constantly when he is taking care of his faithful people: Take and eat, take and drink," the pope said. "And so our priestly life is given in service, in closeness to the faithful People of God -- that always, always tires."

Francis spoke Thursday at the annual Chrism Mass, at which Catholic churches around the world bless holy oils to be used throughout the year.

Holy Thursday recalls Jesus' last supper before his crucifixion and is also considered by the church to mark his creation of the priesthood -- at that supper, he offered himself to his disciples, likening his body to bread to be eaten and his blood to wine to be drunk.

Francis used the Chrism Mass to address different types of tiredness he has seen in priests and to outline a broad vision of a compassionate Catholic priestly role, speaking for 22 minutes and citing extensively from his own writings and the Old and New Testaments.

Reflecting on the first reading of the Mass, taken from Isaiah, Francissaid there are four main commitments of priests.

Citing the prophet, the pope said those are: "bringing to the poor the good news; announcing the liberation of prisoners and the healing of the blind; giving liberty to the oppressed; and proclaiming a year of grace of the Lord."

Francis then said that Isaiah adds: "Healing those who have broken hearts and consoling the afflicted."

"These are not easy external tasks, like for example manual activities -- building a new parish hall, or drawing the lines of a soccer field for the youth of the oratory," he said.

"The commitments mentioned by Jesus imply our capacity of compassion. They are commitments in which our heart is moved," the pope continued.

"We rejoice with couples that marry, we laugh with the child that is brought to be baptized, we accompany the youth that are preparing for marriage and family, we suffer with those who receive the anointing of the sick in their hospital beds, we cry with those who bury a dear person," he said.

Francis opened his homily by talking specifically about the tiredness of priests, asking those at the Mass: "Do you know how many times I think of this: the tiredness of you all?"

"I think of it much and pray of it frequently, especially when I am tired," the pope said. "I pray for you that work in the midst of the faithful People of God entrusted to you, and many in places very abandoned and dangerous."

But the pope warned priests against resting "in whatever way, as if rest were not itself a thing of God."

"Do not fall into this temptation!" he said. "Our fatigue is precious in the eyes of Jesus, who embraces us and lifts us up."

Saying that in how priests rest "is at stake our trust and our memory that we too are sheep," Francis then said priests must ask themselves questions to help themselves in this matter.

Among those he told priests to ask:

  • "Do I know how to rest, accepting the love, gratitude and all the affection that I am given by the faithful People of God?"
  • "After the pastoral work, do I search for more refined rest, not that of the poor but that which is offered by the consumerist society?"
  • "Is the Holy Spirit for me truly a 'repose from fatigue' or only that which makes me work?"
  • "Do I know how to ask help from a wise priest?"

Later in the homily, Francis outlined three types of priestly tiredness on which he said he had meditated and wanted to talk about: a "weariness of the people," a "weariness of enemies," and a "weariness of ourselves."

This first type of weariness, the pope said, "is a good tiredness, a tiredness full of fruits and of joy."

Mentioning Jesus' ministry in the Gospel stories, the pope spoke of how the people who followed the Lord -- from those that brought children to be blessed, to those who had been cured, to young people excited to be with the rabbi -- "did not even leave him time to eat."

"But the Lord never tired of being with people," Francis said. "On the contrary, it seemed that they renewed him."

"This tiredness in the midst of our activity is usually a grace that is at the fingertips of all us priests," he continued. "What a beautiful thing this is: The people love, desire, and have need of their pastors!"

"The faithful people do not leave us without direct engagement, unless one of us hides himself in an office or goes through the city with tinted windows," the pope said.

"This tiredness is good, it is healthy," he continued. "It is the tiredness of the priest with the smell of the sheep -- but with a smile of a father that admires his children or grandchildren."

But, continuing, the pope said such tiredness has "nothing to do with those that know expensive perfumes and look at you from a faraway high point."

"If Jesus is grazing the flock in the midst of us, we cannot be pastors with the sour face, lamenting," Francis said. "Nor, what is worse, bored shepherds."

Speaking of the "weariness of enemies," the pope spoke of the devil's work to undermine priests.

"The evil one is far more astute than we are and has the capacity to demolish in a moment that we have constructed with patience over a long time," Francis said. "The Word of God for these situations of tiredness is: 'Have courage! I have overcome the world!' "

Of the third type of weariness, "weariness of ourselves," the pope said, "This may be the most dangerous."

"The other two kinds come from being exposed, from going out of ourselves to anoint and to play the field," he said. "We are those that care for others."

"That is the tiredness of 'wanting and not wanting,' having played the whole game and then regretting the garlic and onion of Egypt, playing with the illusion of being something else," Francis said.

"I like to call this kind of weariness 'flirting with spiritual worldliness,' " he said. "And when one is alone, you realize how many areas of life were permeated by this worldliness, and we even have the impression that no bathroom can clean it."

Francis, quoting from the Book of Revelation, said it "shows us the cause of this fatigue."

"You have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary," the pope quoted the book. "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first."

Francis concluded: "Only love gives rest. That we do not love tires us badly, and tires us more badly in the long-run."

Concluding the homily, the pope reflected on what the church around the world celebrates on the evening of Holy Thursday: Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet.

"I like to think of this as the cleansing of discipleship," he said. "The Lord purifies discipleship itself, he 'gets involved' with us, becomes personally responsible for removing every stain, all that grimy, worldly smog which clings to us from the journey we have made in his name."

"We know that from our feet, we can tell how the rest of our body is doing," Francis continued. "In the way we follow the Lord reveals how our heart is doing."

"The sores on our feet, our sprains and our weariness are signs of how we have followed him, of the paths we have taken in searching for the lost sheep and in leading the flock to green pastures and tranquil waters," the pope said.

"The Lord washes us and cleanses us of all our feet have accumulated in following him," he continued. "This is something holy. Do not let them remain dirty. Like battle wounds, the Lord kisses them and washes away the dirtiness of our labors."

"Our discipleship itself is cleansed by Jesus, so that we can rightly feel 'joyful,' 'full,' 'without fear and guilt,' " Francis said.

"And to have the courage to go out 'even to the ends of the earth, to every periphery' -- to bring the good news to the most abandoned, knowing that 'he is with us all the days, even to the end of the world,' " he continued.

The pope concluded: "Please, we ask the grace to learn to be tired, but well tired!"

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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