It’s been remarked that Pope Francis often appears to see himself as “the world’s parish priest,” meaning a simple pastor doing the same things Catholic priests do every day all over the world, only on a much bigger stage.
While all such images are inexact, there’s no doubt that when Francis thinks about the priesthood, it’s not primarily the liturgical or theological dimension of the office that comes naturally to mind, but the pastoral – the fine art of direct contact with ordinary people, especially the poor and the hurting.
Holy Thursday is a day that beckons reflection on the priesthood, since Catholic tradition regards it as the moment when Christ instituted the sacramental priesthood. The Chrism Mass brings together the bishop with his priests in the local cathedral, and is designed to represent the unity of the priests with their bishop.
During the Mass, the bishop blesses three oils – the oil of catechumens (oleum catechumenorumor oleum sanctorum), the oil of the infirm (oleum infirmorum) and holy chrism (sacrum chrisma) – which priests will use in the administration of the sacraments throughout the diocese for the year.
Naturally, therefore, Thursday caught Francis in a reflective mood about the character of the priesthood.
The heart of the pope’s case to priests was that the Christian Gospel “is not an object, but a mission,” and that a mission is always expressed in the small, concrete details of life that add up to a joyful commitment.
“It’s precisely the smallest details,” the pope said, “and we’ve all experienced this, which best contain and communicate joy.”
For instance, in the course of advising priests that their homilies should convey “joy that touches people’s hearts, through the Word with which the Lord has touched the priest’s heart in prayer,” the pontiff added that the homily should also be “brief, if possible.”
Similarly, Francis insisted that one hallmark of a good priest is making himself available to people, and wasn’t content to leave it at that – he advised priests to set regular days and hours for meeting folks, saying a priest, with “meek availability,” should “let others use his time.”
That emphasis on being concrete in reaching out to people also came through Thursday when Francis said priests must not be carriers of an “abstract truth.”
It must not be the truth, he said, “of those who don’t incarnate themselves fully in people’s lives because they feel more comfortable with the printed words in books.”
History’s first Latin American pontiff, well-known for his own ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, also advised priests that a priesthood without Mary is a non-starter.
“Without the Madonna, we can’t go forward in our priesthood!” Francis said.
In the course of urging priests to be “contagious” in spreading joy, Francis laid out what he described as the three “graces” of the Gospel:
- Truth, which, he said, is “non-negotiable.”
- Mercy, which, he said, is “unconditional for all sinners.”
- Joy, which he described as “intimate and inclusive.”
Francis is renowned for his emphasis on mercy, including the decision last year to stage a special jubilee Holy Year devoted to the theme of mercy. However, the pope’s attitude toward mercy has sometimes been understood, and criticized, as playing down the reality of sin, or attenuating the Church’s capacity to pass judgment on objective evils.
On that front, Francis’s language on mercy Thursday was instructive.
“The mercy of the good news must never be a false accommodation,” Francis said, “which leaves the sinner in his misery because it won’t extend a hand to get him back on his feet and won’t accompany him in making a step forward in his commitment.”
Francis also urged priests to avoid what he called the “pusillanimity” of not going out to “infect” others with joy.
The integrity of a priest’s life, Francis said, must never be “rigid,” because in Christian life, “the truth was made flesh.”
In the end, Pope Francis laid out three key words to capture an authentically priestly life: “Concrete,” “tender,” and “humble.”
“This meek integrity,” he said, “gives joy to the poor, reanimates sinners, and allows those oppressed by demons to breathe anew.”
In effect, then, what we saw at this chrism Mass was the leader of the universal church insisting that the priesthood is not primarily about universals but particulars, details that become “incarnate” in the lives of concrete people needing the priest’s care.
That may not quite add up to a comprehensive theology of the priesthood, but it does carry the stamp of a man who’s been in the pastoral trenches himself and, in his famous phrase, “carries the smell of his sheep.”