LIMA, Peru – Almost from day one of his papacy, Pope Francis has made a trope out of railing against “clericalism,” once warning that it “nullifies the personality of Christians” and, on another occasion, praying for a Church completely “free” of clericalism.

So familiar is his anti-clericalism rhetoric, by now there’s little energy devoted to pondering what exactly he means by it. For those wondering, however, the pope delivered a fairly clear overview on Sunday in an address to the bishops of Peru, part of the closing act of a six-day visit to Latin America that earlier took him to Chile.

Typically, the assumption is that “clericalism” refers to a system of power and privilege enjoyed by clergy, the usual manifestations of which are clerics who assume they can boss people around by virtue of being ordained, and also clerics who live in luxurious surroundings purchased by the sacrifices of ordinary people.

Francis does appear to include all that when he derides “clericalism,” though not always quite in the way one might think. This is a pope, after all, hardly shy about wielding his own personal power when he believes something important is at stake, from firing Vatican personnel to making big-picture decisions on matters such as the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion.

Often, the aspect of clericalism that seems to frustrate Francis the most actually isn’t power or privilege, but distance – a disengagement from the lives, experiences and perspectives of ordinary people, in favor of largely internal ecclesiastical obsessions. That’s what he seemed to mean on Saturday, for instance, when he urged priests in Peru to avoid the temptation of becoming “professionals of the sacred.”

In other words, the opposite of “clerical,” in Francis’s mind, isn’t so much “powerless” or even “poor,” but rather “close.”

In speaking to Peru’s bishops on Sunday, Francis invoked the example of Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo, a Spanish cleric born to a noble family and a onetime Grand Inquisitor for King Philip II, who was later named the Archbishop of Lima and spent the rest of his life evangelizing Peru and the Americas.

Describing Turibius’s relationship with his priests, Francis used language that amounts to a synthesis of what it means for a church not to be “clerical.”

“He was a pastor who knew his priests,” Francis said, “a pastor who tried to visit them, to accompany them, to encourage them and to admonish them.”

“He reminded his priests that they were pastors and not shopkeepers, and so they had to care for and defend the indios as their children,” the pope said. “Yet he did not do this from a desk, and so he knew his sheep and they recognized, in his voice, the voice of the good shepherd.”

In effect, that’s Francis’s basic prescription for avoiding the scourge of clericalism – get out from behind the desk.

“Today we would call him a ‘street’ bishop,” Francis said, speaking of Turibius. “A bishop with shoes worn out by walking, by constant travel, by setting out to preach the Gospel to all.”

On papal trips, the speech to the bishops is usually the venue in which the pontiff lays out his vision for the church in that country. On Sunday, Francis did that through the figure of St. Turibius, highlighting four aspects of his legacy he urged today’s bishops to embrace:

  • Meeting people where they are, seeking them rather than waiting for them to seek him.
  • Learning the languages of the people in order to bring the Gospel to them.
  • Denouncing the injustices his people suffered.
  • Forming priests in the same spirit.

In terms of outreach, Francis stressed the saint’s missionary drive, noting that of his 22 years as the Archbishop of Lima, Turibius spent 18 of them outside the city, effectively crossing the entire expanse of his vast territory three times.

“He knew that this was the one way to be a pastor: to be close to his own, dispensing the sacraments, and he constantly exhorted his priests to do the same,” Francis said. “He did so not only by words, but by his witness in the front lines of evangelization.”

On the importance of speaking to people in their own language, Francis noted that Turibius insisted on compiling catechisms in the indigenous native languages of Quechua and Aymara, and encouraged his priests to master those languages.

“Visiting and living with his people, he realized that it was not enough just to be there physically, but to learn to speak the language of others, for only in this way could the Gospel be understood and touch the heart,” the pope said.

Today, Francis argued, that challenge is still there, albeit in new forms.

“We have to learn completely new languages, like that, for example, of this, our digital age,” he said. “To know the real language of our young people, our families, our children … We need to get to the places where new stories and paradigms are being born.”

Francis is legendarily a champion of the “peripheries,” of the oppressed and forgotten, and so it was unsurprising that he lifted up that chapter of Turibius’s story as well.

“In his visits, he was able to see the abuses and excesses that the original peoples had suffered,” Francis said, pointing out that he wasn’t afraid to act on what he had seen – in 1585, Turibius excommunicated a Spanish colonial official, earning the wrath, Francis said, of “a whole system of corruption and a web of interests.”

“Such, we see, is the pastor who knows that spiritual good can never be separated from just material good, and all the more so when the integrity and dignity of persons is at risk,” the pope said

“In this way, Turibius reminds society as a whole, and each community, that charity must always be accompanied by justice,” Francis added. “And that there can be no authentic evangelization that does not point out and denounce every sin against the lives of our brothers and sisters, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

Finally, Francis lauded the care that Saint Turibius displayed for his priests, among other things founding the first post-Tridentine seminary in his part of the world.

“He defended the ordination of the mestizos – a controversial issue at that time – and sought to make others see that if the clergy needed to be different in any area, it had to be by virtue of their holiness and not their racial origin,” Francis said.

“This formation was not limited to seminary studies, but continued through the constant visits that he undertook,” the pope said.

In that regard, Francis told a story. One Christmas Eve, he said, Turibius’s sister gave him a new shirt to wear during the holidays. The same day, Turibius visited one of his priests, and, upon seeing his living conditions, swiftly gave him the shirt.

Tellingly, the aspect of the story that seemed to leave the deepest impression on Francis wasn’t so much the poverty implied in giving the shirt away, but the fact that Turibius was out in the field and knew how his priest was living.

Wrapping up his remarks, Francis urged the Peruvian bishops to promote a spirit of unity in the Church.

“Dear brothers, work for unity,” he said. “Do not remain prisoners of divisions that create cliques and hamper our vocation to be a sacrament of communion.”

Since he had some free time after his prepared remarks, the pope asked the local bishops to ask him questions. One asked about the Amazonian region, which the pontiff had visited the day before, and where chronic priest shortages hamper pastoral efforts.

Francis responded that he’d first heard about the “missionary crisis” in the Amazon during a encounter of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.

The pope then spoke about a synod of bishops he’s called on the Pan-Amazonian region, to take place in 2019, saying that that the “problem of the diaconate is one of the things we need to seriously think about, but since there’s a synod, the pope can’t speak before.”

“The synod fathers will have to make proposals,” he said, to address the shortage of ministers in the region.

Later on Sunday, Francis will celebrate Mass at an air base in Lima, one of the few venues in the city deemed capable of accommodating the large crowd expected to attend.

The pontiff will then board the papal plane for his return flight to Rome, where he’s expected to hold his customary in-flight news conference.