As Pope Francis call for deeper reform within the Church, he has raised the level of expectations for his priests. As some members of the clergy decide to isolate themselves and their ministry from him, and choose a different path contrary to his direction, the pope goes to the heart of the matter.
He reminds priests: “For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all he has.”
The pontiff calls priests back to Jesus Christ, who is to be their first love. He exhorts them to live their consecration to the Lord Jesus without exception. The pope unflinchingly exposes the dark spirits of pride, vanity and greed, which can betray a priest’s dedication to the Gospel, and calls the clergy to prayer, humility, and to a simplicity of life.
And on that foundation, the pope echoes the commission given by Jesus Christ to go into the world, foster fellowship with all men and women, and selflessly serve those in need. As he famously said, priests are to know “the odor of the sheep.”
In his teaching, the pope continues this summons when he instructed: “The heart of the priest is a heart pierced by the love of the Lord. For this reason, he no longer looks to himself, but is turned towards God and his brothers and sisters.”
Drawing on his own decades of sacerdotal ministry, the pontiff dissects the heart of a priest, explaining that “it is no longer ‘a fluttering heart,’ allured by momentary whims, shunning disagreements and seeking petty satisfactions. Rather, it is a heart rooted firmly in the Lord, warmed by the Holy Spirit, open and available to our brothers and sisters.”
This catechesis particularly hit home for me as I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination this past week. I am surprised how quickly time has flown, how much has been expected of me as a priest, and how much good God has been able to do in me and through me when I have heeded the counsel emphasized by Pope Francis.
In ten years, I’ve learned that a priest can either be a “man of God” or a man of this world. He can be a person of prayer or of domination, one who shepherds or one who harms, he can be either a prince or a penitent.
When unchecked, ministry can quickly become self-promotion or indulgence. It can be a seedbed of entitlement, resentment, and self-pity.
When tempered, however, ministry can be a constant opportunity for love, self-donation, and generous service. When lived well and according to one’s ordination, the priesthood becomes a bridge.
And over this bridge the priest can bring the tenderness of God and his saving message of mercy and kindness into the world while simultaneously bringing wounded and hurt humanity into the welcoming presence of God. This interconnection is the work of the priest. It’s what should drive him in his service and motivate him in his outreach.
And this is the mission to which Pope Francis is attempting to refocus and redirect the affection and energy of his clergy.
And so, the pope would teach about Jesus Christ: “The Heart of the Good Shepherd tells us that his love is limitless. It is never exhausted and it never gives up. There we see his infinite and boundless self-giving. There we find the source of that faithful and meek love which sets free and makes others free.”
Without any equivocation or compromise, therefore, Pope Francis calls all priests today to pursue and strive to be nothing less than the Good Shepherd himself.
Does every priest seek to live this lofty vocation of love?
Perhaps a few avoid it, but most have staked their lives on this journey of the Cross and Resurrection, of failure and repentance, and of compassion and renewal.
In the end, most priests understand their mission and labor to do their best in spite of their own insecurities, sins and weaknesses. And so, it is right for Pope Francis to call on and admonish the priests of the Church, as if saying: “Become what you were born to be! The Church and the world need you. Give everything without counting the cost. Don’t be distracted. Stay the course. Love!”
This mandate is what every priest understands. It’s what I accepted ten years ago. It’s what all priests are called to embrace, and what they are to pass on without adulteration to the world and to those under their care.