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“Revive that gift, rediscover that anointing, rekindle that flame, so that your zeal for the apostolic ministry will not fade.” This was Pope Francis’ advice to some 1,000 participants of a conference in Rome on the “ongoing formation of priests” on February 8, 2024.
In his speech he gave three pieces of advice, along with certain warnings, in order to form priests who can hold on to the enthusiasm of their ministry.
“Let me point out three paths to take in the process of priestly formation: the joy of the Gospel, belonging to God’s people, and service as ‘generative,’” the Pope said.
The conference, which has brought together participants from 60 countries, is titled “The beauty of being a disciple today” and has as a theme the verse “Fan into flame the gift of God that you possess” (2 Tim 1:6).
Lasting from February 6 to 10, it is organized by three Vatican dicasteries: for the Clergy, for Evangelization, and for the Eastern Churches.
The event is aimed at sharing best practices and also challenges and issues that may plague priestly formation. The Pope encouraged the participants to “listen to one another” and never fall into the trap of believing that they have all the answers.
“I am scared of those who believe they have all the answers,” he said.
The joy of the Gospel needs good formation
The Pope highlighted that in order for priests to proclaim the joy of the Gospel they must have first experienced it themselves, and thus having a complete and human formation is crucial.
“In doing ongoing formation […] let us remember that we are always disciples on a journey, and that that, at all moments, is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to us, thanks to God’s grace!” the Pope said, highlighting the importance of taking care of one’s “humanity.”
He warned against becoming priests who “have lost that sense of discipleship and instead feel like masters,” highlighting those who don’t have a “capacity for service, maybe due to selfishness, or who have taken the ‘entrepreneurial’ path.”
He also told his audience to beware of becoming a “worldly priest,” saying that “worldliness ruins everything,” or of becoming “a bitter priest” who is just “an ‘old bachelor.’”
“We need priests who are fully human, who can play with children and look after the elderly, who are capable of healthy relationships, are mature in confronting the challenges of ministry, so that the consolation of the Gospel may reach the people of God through their humanity transformed by the Spirit of Jesus,” the Pope emphasized.
“At the heart of the Christian life is the gift of friendship with the Lord, which sets us free from the dreariness of individualism and the risk of a life without meaning, without love and without hope. […] We in turn are called to make this joyful proclamation resound throughout the world by the witness of our lives, so that all may discover the beauty of the saving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Being with God’s people helps keep priests rooted
The second path that Pope Francis suggests for priestly formation is being with God’s people in order to remind pastors of the purpose of their mission and where their roots are.
“We can carry out our priestly ministry well only if we are fully part of the priestly people, from which we ourselves have come,” the Pontiff said.
Not being separated from the people of God “preserves us, sustains us in our efforts, accompanies us in our pastoral concerns, and keeps us safe from the risk of growing detached from reality and feeling all-powerful. Let us be attentive to this, because it is also the root of every form of abuse,” he warned.
He highlighted the importance of synodality and different ministries working together so that they can learn from one another and to also not neglect “priestly fraternity.”
“Remember your roots, your history, the history of your family, and the history of your people. A priest is not born spontaneously; either he is of God’s people or he is an aristocrat who ends up neurotic,” the Pope said.
Service as crucial to forming the Catholics of tomorrow
Lastly, the Pope said the third important point for priestly formation is to see it as a service to the Church that is then “generative.” Priestly formation is “not simply the transmission of a body of teachings, but becomes also the art of placing others at the center, bringing out all their beauty and all the good that they carry within, shedding light on their gifts but also on their shadows, their wounds and their desires,” the Pope explained.
“Consequently, forming priests means serving them, serving their lives, encouraging their journey, assisting them in discernment, accompanying them in their difficulties and supporting them amid pastoral challenges.”
“A priest formed in this way will then put himself at the service of the people of God, be close to people and, like Jesus on the cross, willingly shoulder responsibility for all,” the Pope emphasized.
A “generative pastoral activity” brings “daughters and sons to new life in Christ and pours the living water of the Gospel on the soil of human hearts and on the times in which we live.”
Lastly, the Pope highlighted the importance of being merciful, because “forgiveness has this grace of embracing, of welcoming.”