ROME – Speaking to fellow priests Thursday, Pope Francis compared the flocks they lead to the crowds that constantly surrounded Jesus, who was able to recognize individual people, heal their wounds and who was often moved by their faith.
It is this type of close personal contact and commitment that gives a priest a pastor’s heart and keeps his vocation from growing stale, he said.
Using the image of the anointing with oil, a traditional symbol of healing in Catholicism, Francis said priests are not “distributors of bottled oil,” but rather, “we anoint by distributing ourselves, distributing our vocation and our heart.”
“When we anoint others, we ourselves are anointed anew by the faith and the affection of our people,” he said. “We anoint by dirtying our hands in touching the wounds, the sins and the worries of the people. We anoint by perfuming our hands in touching their faith, their hopes, their fidelity and the unconditional generosity of their self-giving.”
“The one who learns how to anoint and to bless is thus healed of meanness, abuse and cruelty,” he said.
Francis spoke during his annual Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in St. Peter’s Basilica and celebrated a part of Holy Week during which the sacred oils to be used in sacraments throughout diocese in the coming year, called chrism, were blessed.
The Chrism Mass is not only an important moment for the bishop, who presides and blesses the oils, but also for priests, as the image of anointing evoked during Mass is typically reminiscent of the anointing they received on the day of their ordination to the priesthood.
In his homily for the April 18 ceremony, Francis focused on the image of the crowd who listened to Jesus preach in the day’s Gospel from Luke, and the throngs of people who would turn up to hear Jesus preach or to ask for healing.
When the word “crowd” is used, for some people it can evoke “a faceless, nameless throng,” however, the Gospel shows a different image, Francis said. With Jesus, “we see that when the crowd interacts with the Lord – who stands in their midst like a shepherd among his flock – something happens.”
People who surround Jesus, the pope said, are filled with amazement and the desire to follow him, and a “discernment” of his power and authority.
Jesus’s affection for the crowds that follow him “contrasts with the small-mindedness of the disciples, whose attitude towards people verges on cruelty when they suggest to the Lord that he send them away, so that they can get something to eat,” Francis said, adding that in his view, this is the root of clericalism.
Clericalism, he said, begins with “this desire to be assured of a meal and personal comfort without any concern for the people.”
Yet Jesus cuts through this, allowing himself to be moved by his people and “amazed” by their faith, Francis said, adding that in turn, the people are also able to discern the power and authority with which Jesus speaks.
This, he said, is “not the discernment of those who specialize in disputed questions,” but rather, “what people discerned was Jesus’ authority, the power of his teaching to touch their hearts, and the fact that evil spirits obeyed him, leaving momentarily speechless those who tried to trap him by their questions.”
Francis noted that the crowds who follow Jesus are typically divided into four groups: The poor, the blind, the oppressed, the captives, each of whom are spoken of in general terms in the Gospel, but who throughout Jesus’ life “gradually take on real names and faces.”
Citing specific examples, the pope pointed to the woman who gives up two small coins as an offering and who, though poor, is generous with her gift and is a sterling example of what Francis said are “all those men and women who are the ‘saints next door.’”
He also pointed to the story of the blind man Bartimaeus, who prayed every day to receive his sight and who, when his sight is restored, “only had eyes to follow Jesus,” who offers mankind “the brightness daily stolen from us by the manipulative and banal images with which the world overwhelms us.”
The oppressed and the captives, Francis said, are all those “individuals, families and entire peoples ignored, excluded and unwanted, on the sidelines of history” and who in modern cities “are taken prisoner not so much at spear point,” as they were in Jesus’ time, “but by more subtle means of ideological colonization.”
“Only the anointing of culture, built up by the labor and the art of our forebears, can free our cities from these new forms of slavery,” he said.
Speaking directly to priests, Francis said their “evangelical models” are “those people, the crowd with its real faces, which the anointing of the Lord raises up and revives.”
“They are the ones who complete and make real the anointing of the Spirit in ourselves; they are the ones whom we have been anointed to anoint,” he said, noting that since priests come from this crowd, “we can fearlessly identify with these ordinary people. They are an image of our soul and an image of the Church. Each of them incarnates the one heart of our people.”
Priests, the pope said, “are the poor man” and are called to have a heart like the poor widow who offered her coins when they give alms, “touching the hand of the beggar and looking him or her in the eye.”
“We priests are, in some point of our sinfulness, the man beaten by the robbers” and left on the side of the road, he said, “And we want first to be in the compassionate hands of the good Samaritan, in order then to be able to show compassion to others with our own hands.”