At a recent plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said Pope Francis offers a vision for priests as shepherds on the move who encounter and welcome the members of their flock where they are and invite them to know and love Jesus.
“The essential features of the priest and of his ministry according to Pope Francis, are derived from the understanding of the Church as the people of God in continuous journey,” Washington’s archbishop said in a May 31 talk.
He added that the pope’s vision for priesthood can be seen in one of the major themes of his pontificate, “the emphasis on going out to others to accompany them in their life’s journey, and being in close proximity to them.”
Francis wants priests to help people know that the doors of the Church and of God’s mercy are always open to them, the cardinal said, adding, “But more than that, we should not wait for people to come to us where we are, but like the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep, we need to be going out to encounter people where they are, in the circumstances of their lives and situations.”
To understand Francis’s vision, “we and individual priests must view our priestly ministry through the lens of the New Evangelization,” the call to share the Gospel in today’s world, Wuerl said.
The cardinal’s talk came during a three-day plenary assembly of the cardinals and bishops serving in the congregation, along with staff and consultors.
The main topic for the gathering was a discussion of the new Ratio Fundamentalis, a document that will set forth guidelines for programs of priestly formation that bishops’ conferences around the world will adapt to the circumstances of their local churches.
Francis addressed the plenary on June 1, where he offered words of encouragement for young priests beginning their ministry, advising them to pray always, continue on their pilgrim journey with faith and love, and share with hearts filled with compassion.
In his talk, Wuerl said the words that the pope often uses, like “journey, go out, accompany, invite, welcome, embrace (and) culture of encounter” reflect the pilgrim journey of the Church, leading people to Jesus and heaven.
That path, he said, “sometimes must take us into those places of darkness and the desert of hunger and thirst, of indifference and abandonment, of spiritual poverty where God has been forgotten. We must go to these places to lead the people there out of the desert.”
Noting that Francis has encouraged Catholics to be missionary disciples and go out to the peripheries to help people encounter Jesus, Wuerl quoted the pope’s first general audience from Holy Week 2013, “Following Jesus means learning to come out of ourselves… in order to go to meet others, to go towards the outskirts of existence, to be the first to take a step toward our brothers and our sisters, especially those who are the most distant, those who are forgotten, those who are most in need of understanding, comfort and help.”
That same Holy Week, the new Pope Francis encouraged priests to “be shepherds, living with the smell of the sheep… as shepherds among your flock.”
As shepherds, priests are configured to and must remain close to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and must stay close to their flocks, Wuerl said.
“To take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ means to be out amongst the flock entrusted to the priest, personally close to them,” he said. “It means not simply being available in the office or celebrating the sacraments – as central and primary to the priesthood as that is – but being engaged in the lives of parishioners and others in the community.”
Francis has underscored the importance of walking with people, and guiding them on the path to Christ, Washington’s archbishop said, adding, “The priest cannot shepherd the flock from afar, he must be there with people in their journey. He must walk with them, side-by-side.”
That means priests must reach out to people experiencing brokenness, just as Jesus touched and brought healing and God’s love and mercy to people in need, Wuerl said.
“The priest today,” he said, “will encounter many people who live in dysfunctional or broken families, those who have divorced, people who are unemployed and who try to survive in material poverty, people who are on the move seeking refuge and a better life, people who are sick and dying, and many who are suffering from spiritual wounds.”
The pontiff has underscored the need for all members of the Church to carry out the work of the New Evangelization and bring Christ’s truth and love to a world where culture is often dominated by materialism, secularism, individualism, and societal tendencies to bleach out faith from public and private life, the cardinal said.
Through his words in documents like Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and through his personal witness, Pope Francis is demonstrating the need to bring the love of Jesus to people where they are, Wuerl said, adding, “He is also calling us priests to do the same.”
In his talk, the cardinal noted that Francis’s vision offers five essential characteristics for priests: having a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus; devotion to sacramental ministry; proximity to their flock; offering a ministry of mercy; and living lives of service and humility.
“First, the priest must have a vibrant, personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, which begins with that initial vocational call, is transformed in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and then deepens and grows in grace and in the daily life of the priest,” he said.
Francis has emphasized that the priesthood is a ministry, not a job, Wuerl said.
“As priests, we can do many great things, we can provide many important services in aid of many people, but if we leave Jesus out of the process, then we do people a grave disservice,” the cardinal said. “Any governmental organization, any secular worker in social service can provide charitable care to the poor and others – and it is good that they do so – but as good as that is, it leaves out something essential. It leaves out true hope, sustenance and salvation that is found only in the Lord.”
A daily relationship with Christ through prayer transforms a priest’s heart, so he can “see, feel and love as Jesus sees, feels and loves,” and then become the face of Jesus to those he serves, Washington’s archbishop said.
Wuerl also noted how Francis has highlighted the importance of priests being devoted to the sacraments. “The spirituality of the priest is riveted to his sacramental ministry,” the cardinal said.
“Never is a priest more the presence of Jesus – the icon of Christ – than in the administration of the sacraments,” Wuerl said, noting how the life of a priest is enriched by celebrating Masses, funerals, weddings, baptisms, anointing the sick and hearing Confessions. “In each of those graced moments, Christ is present and acting.”
The spirituality of a priest, he said, is nourished by a vibrant prayer life and a fruitful sacramental ministry, which will “foster ongoing priestly formation and spiritual growth, which in turn, will bear fruit in the priest’s pastoral ministry.”
Proximity to the flock is also vital for the priest, Wuerl said, noting that the pope has encouraged priests to be a living embodiment of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
That shepherding sometimes involves reaching out to “those who are not yet a part of the flock, proclaiming the Good News to them and inviting them to join that fold,” said the cardinal.
Wuerl noted how Francis in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) encouraged priests to offer pastoral outreach and accompaniment to those who are wounded or living in “irregular situations,” reaching out to them not with condemnation but with Jesus’ love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, sharing the teaching of the Church with them in welcoming language and helping them discern their situation and assisting them in the formation of conscience, “so they can journey in the right direction on the pilgrim path.
“If we take as our inspiration the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd with the lost sheep around his shoulders, we can begin to recognize what Pope Francis is telling us,” the cardinal said.
Francis sees mercy as being central to the priesthood, Wuerl said, adding, “The priestly ministry must be a ministry of mercy.”
At last year’s Chrism Mass, the pope said, “As priests, we are witnesses to and ministers of the ever-increasing abundance of the Father’s mercy,” and by sharing God’s love and mercy, priests can “help to inculcate mercy, so that each person can embrace it and experience it personally,” and then bring mercy to their families and communities.
Wuerl added that, “Mercy builds bridges and establishes bonds. This attitude must be seen in contrast to moralism and legalism, which create barriers and push people away.”
Francis also encourages priests to live lives of service and humility, the cardinal said, noting how Jesus washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper.
“Every aspect of the life of the priest must reflect the deep meaning of his vocation, which is to serve with love,” the cardinal said, noting how at his ordination, each priest is prostrate before the altar as a sign that he is “laying down his life for Christ, his Church and his people.”
Wuerl said Francis’s vision for the priesthood offers a template for renewal, as priests join the faithful in carrying out the New Evangelization as missionary disciples in today’s world, helping people encounter, love and follow Jesus.
“In this work, it falls to each priest to be the face of Christ and his mercy, to be an embodiment of the Good Shepherd, a perennial reflection of divine love to many faithful who already know, live and manifest the kingdom of God, but also to a world facing so many questions, dilemmas and challenges that ultimately find answers only in God,” the cardinal said.