"The drama of loneliness, of the feeling of being alone, is consuming many presbyteries," lamented the head of the Catholic Church.
“Without friends and prayer, celibacy can become an unbearable burden,” Pope Francis acknowledged as he opened a symposium on the priesthood organized at the Vatican on February 17, 2022, by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
Before about 500 participants gathered in Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father developed a meditation on the four “proximities” that the priest is called to cultivate: with God, with the bishop, among priests, and with the people.
“Celibacy is a gift that the Latin Church preserves, but it is a gift that, in order to be lived as sanctification, requires healthy relationships, relationships of true esteem that find their roots in Christ. Without friends and prayer, celibacy can become an unbearable burden and a counter-witness to the very beauty of the priesthood,” Francis warned in a speech that lasted about an hour.
“The drama of loneliness, of the feeling of being alone, is consuming many presbyteries,” lamented the head of the Catholic Church, urging priests to intensify their bonds of fraternity.
The Pope invited a spiritual and fraternal renewal rather than a revision of the rules, even as in some countries the value of priestly celibacy is being questioned. In Germany at the beginning of February, the local Synodal Way voted in favor of the ordination of married men. This proposal had also been voted on by the Synod Fathers at the Synod on Amazon in October 2019.
Warnings against “functionalism” and “gossip”
Instead, the Pope focused on the path of holiness that priests are called to live and stressed the importance of a personal relationship with God. “Many priestly crises have their origin in a poor prayer life,” the Argentinean Pope warned. Without prayer, the priest is “only a tired worker who does not enjoy the benefits of the Lord’s friends.”
He also denounced “gossip,” mentioning in particular his astonishment when in the investigations into the selection of future bishops, he feels the jealousy of some priests towards their confreres. “Envy is a disease of the priesthood,” Pope Francis said.
Priests should not become “state clerics” or “professionals of the sacred,” but “courageous men, capable of stopping by those who are wounded to reach out to them,” the Pope insisted.
“Clericalism is a perversion because it is formed on ‘estrangements.’ When I think of clericalism, I also think of the clericalization of the laity: this promotion of a small elite that, around the priest, also ends up distorting his fundamental mission,” the Pope warned.
Do not take refuge in the past
The Pope stressed the importance of the closeness between priests and their bishops, saying that “obedience is not a disciplinary attribute but the most profound characteristic of the bonds that unite us in communion.”
“This obedience can also be confrontation, listening and, in some cases, tension,” the Bishop of Rome acknowledged.
Without mentioning them by name, the pope spoke out against both the traditionalist temptation, denouncing “the search for codified forms, very often rooted in the past, which ‘guarantee’ us a kind of protection against risks by taking refuge in a world and a society that no longer exist,” and against the progressive temptation, which pushes us to rely too much on “the latest novelty, thus scorning the wisdom of years.”
The Pope’s return to his personal journey
Looking back on his personal experience of more than 50 years of priesthood, Pope Francis, who was ordained in 1969, paid tribute to the “priests who, by their life and witness, have shown me since my childhood what gives shape to the face of the Good Shepherd.”
He also recalled “those brother priests” whom he had to accompany “because they had lost the fire of first love and their ministry had become sterile, repetitive and empty of meaning.”
“I myself went through various conditions and phases, and, ‘ruminating’ on the motions of the Spirit, I found that in certain situations, even in moments of trial, difficulty and desolation, when I lived and shared the experience, somehow, peace remained,” the Pope said.