By Sergio Centofanti
Pope Francis has written to priests recalling the 160th anniversary of the death of the Curé of Ars, Patron Saint of parish priests around the world. It is a letter that expresses encouragement and closeness to "brother priests, who without making noise" leave everything to engage in the daily life of communities; those who work in the "trenches"; those who confront an endless variety of situations in your effort “to care for and accompany God’s people.” “I want to say a word to each of you, writes the Pope, who, often without fanfare and at personal cost, amid weariness, infirmity and sorrow, carry out your mission of service to God and to your people. Despite the hardships of the journey, you are writing the finest pages of the priestly life.”
The papal letter opens with a look at the abuse scandal: “In these years, we have become more attentive to the cry, often silent and suppressed, of our brothers and sisters who were victims of the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of ordained ministers.” But, Pope Francis explains, even without “denying or dismissing the harm caused by some of our brothers, it would be unfair not to express our gratitude to all those priests who faithfully and generously spend their lives in the service of others.” “Countless priests make of their lives a work of mercy in areas or situations that are often hostile, isolated or ignored, even at the risk of their lives.” The Pope thanked them "for their courageous and constant example" and writes that "in these times of turbulence, shame and pain, you demonstrate that you have joyfully put your lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel ". He invites them not to be discouraged, because "The Lord is purifying his Bride and converting all of us to himself. He is letting us be put to the test in order to make us realize that without him we are simply dust.”
The second key word is "gratitude". Pope Francis recalls that "vocation, more than our choice, is a response to a free call from the Lord". The Pope exhorts priests to "return to those luminous moments" in which we have experienced the call of the Lord to consecrate all our lives to his service, to "that "yes" born and developed in the heart of the Christian community.” In moments of difficulty, fragility, weakness, “the worst temptation of all is to keep brooding over our troubles”. It is crucial - explains the Pontiff - "to cherish the memory of the Lord’s presence in our lives and his merciful gaze, which inspired us to put our lives on the line for him and for his People. Gratitude "is always a powerful weapon. Only if we are able to contemplate and feel genuine gratitude for all those ways we have experienced God’s love, generosity, solidarity and trust, as well as his forgiveness, patience, forbearance and compassion, will we allow the Spirit to grant us the freshness that can renew (and not simply patch up) our life and mission.”
Pope Francis also thanks his brother priests "for their fidelity to their commitments". It is "truly significant" - he observes - that in a "ephemeral" society and culture, there are people who discover the joy of giving life. He says “thank you” for the daily celebration of the Eucharist and for the ministry of the sacrament of reconciliation, lived "without rigor or laxity", taking charge of people and "accompanying them on the path of conversion". He thanks them for the proclamation of the Gospel made "to all, with ardor":
Thank you for the times when, with great emotion, you embraced sinners, healed wounds… Nothing is more necessary than this: accessibility, closeness, readiness to draw near to the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters.”
The heart of a pastor - says the Pope - is one "who has developed a spiritual taste for being one with his people, a pastor who never forgets that he has come from them…this in turn will lead to adopting a simple and austere way of life, rejecting privileges that have nothing to do with the Gospel.”
But the Pope also thanks and invites priests to gives thanks "for the holiness of the faithful people of God", expressed “in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.”
The third word is "encouragement". The Pope wants to encourage priests: "The mission to which we are called does not exempt us from suffering, pain and even misunderstanding. Rather, it requires us to face them squarely and to accept them, so that the Lord can transform them and conform us more closely to himself.”
A good test for knowing how to find the shepherd's heart," writes Pope Francis, "is to ask ourselves how we are dealing with pain. Sometimes, in fact, it can happen that we behave like the Levite or the priest of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who ignore the man who lies on the ground, other times we approach pain intellectually, and taking refuge in clichés ("life is like that, we can do nothing"), ending up giving space to fatalism. " Or else we can draw near with a kind of aloofness that brings only isolation and exclusion.”
The Pope also warns against what Bernanos called the “the most precious of the devil's potions", that is "the sweet sadness that the Fathers of the East called acedia. The sadness that paralyzes the courage to continue in work, in prayer", which "makes sterile all attempts at transformation and conversion, spreading resentment and animosity". Pope Francis invites them to ask "the Spirit to come and awaken us", to "shake our torpor", to challenge habituality and "let us rethink our usual way of doing things; let us open our eyes and ears, and above all our hearts, so as not to be complacent about things as they are, but unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord”.
"During our lives, we have been able to contemplate how joy is always reborn with Jesus Christ. A joy, the Pontiff points out, that "does not arise from voluntary or intellectual efforts but from the confidence to know that the words of Jesus to Peter continue to act".
It is in prayer - the Pope explains - that "we experience our blessed precariousness which reminds us of our being disciples in need of the Lord's help and frees us from the Promethean tendency of those who ultimately rely solely on their own strengths". The pastor's prayer "is nourished and incarnated in the heart of God's people. It bears the signs of the wounds and joys of its people".
An entrustment that " sets us free from looking for quick, easy, ready-made answers; it allows the Lord to be the one – not our own recipes and goals – to point out a path of hope. So "we recognize our frailty, yes; but we allow Jesus to transform it and project us continuously towards the mission".
The Pope observes that for one’s heart to be encouraged, that two constitutive bonds must not be neglected. The first is the relationship with Jesus: It is the invitation not to neglect "spiritual accompaniment, having a brother with whom to speak, discuss, and discern one's own path". The second link is with people: "Do not withdraw from your people, your presbyterates and your communities, much less seek refuge in closed and elitist groups…a courageous minister is a minister always on the move".
The Pope asks priests to "be close to those who suffer, to be, without shame, close to human misery and, and indeed to make all these experiences our own, as eucharist.". To be " builders of relationships and communion, open, trusting and awaiting in hope the newness that the kingdom of God wishes to bring about even today.”
The last word proposed in the letter is "praise". It is impossible to speak of gratitude and encouragement without contemplating Mary who "teaches us the praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present. ". Because "to look at Mary is to go back to believing in the revolutionary power of tenderness and affection". For this reason - concludes the Pope – “if at times we can feel tempted to withdraw into ourselves and our own affairs, safe from the dusty paths of daily life. Or regrets, complaints, criticism and sarcasm gain the upper hand and make us lose our desire to keep fighting, hoping and loving. At those times, let us look to Mary so that she can free our gaze of all the “clutter” that prevents us from being attentive and alert, and thus capable of seeing and celebrating Christ alive in the midst of his people.”
"Brothers - these are the final words of the letter - once again, I continually give thanks for you... May we allow our gratitude to awaken praise and renewed enthusiasm for our ministry of anointing our brothers and sisters with hope. May we be men whose lives bear witness to the compassion and mercy that Jesus alone can bestow on us.”