Two days ago the Holy Father held his Lenten meeting with the Priests of Rome and spoke about mercy. Here is what he said.
The passage of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard makes us turn our gaze to Jesus who walks through the cities and villages. And this is curious. What was the place where Jesus was most often, where he could be found most easily? On the streets. It might have seemed that he was a homeless person, because he was always on the street. Jesus’ life was on the street. Above all, he invites us to appreciate the depth of his heart, what he feels for the crowds, for the people he meets: the interior attitude of “compassion,” seeing the crowds, he feels compassion for them. Because he sees people “tired and exhausted, as sheep without a shepherd.” We have heard these words so many times, that perhaps they do not enter us forcefully. But they are strong! They were somewhat like the many people that you meet today on the streets of your neighborhoods … Then the horizon widens, and we see that these cities and villages are not only Rome and Italy, but they are the world …. And those exhausted crowds are the populations of many countries that are suffering yet more difficult situations …
Then we understand that we are not here to do a good spiritual exercise at the beginning of Lent, but to listen to the voice of the Spirit that speaks to the whole Church in this our time, which is in fact the time of mercy. I am certain of this. It is not only in Lent. We have been living in the time of mercy for 30 or more years, up to now.
1. It is the time of mercy in the whole Church.
It was instituted by Blessed John Paul II. He had the “intuition” that this was the time of mercy. We think of the beatification and canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska; then he introduced the feast of the Divine Mercy. He moved slowly, slowly, and went ahead with this.
In the homily for the Canonization, which took place in 2000, John Paul II stressed that Jesus Christ’s message to Sister Faustina was placed in time between two World Wars and is very linked to the history of the 20th century. How will the future of man be on earth, he says, "It is not given to us to know it. It is true, however, that along with the new progresses we will not lack painful experiences. However, the light of Divine Mercy, which the Lord wished virtually to give again to the world through the charism of Sister Faustina, will illumine the path of the men of the third millennium.” It is clear. It was explicit in 2000, but it was something that had been maturing in his heart for some time. He had this intuition in his prayer.
Today we forget everything too hastily, also the Magisterium of the Church! It is inevitable in part, but we cannot forget the great contents, the great intuitions and the consignment left to the People of God. And that of the Divine Mercy is one of these. It is a consignment that he gave us, but which come from on High. It is up to us, as ministers of the Church, to keep alive this message especially in our preaching and gestures, in signs, in pastoral choices, for instance the choice to restore priority to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and, at the same time, to the works of mercy; to reconcile, to make peace through the Sacrament, and also with words, and with works of mercy.
2. What does mercy mean for priests?
I recall that some of you have telephoned me, written a letter, and then I have talked on the telephone … “But Father, why do you have it in for priests?” Because they said that I beat the priests! I don’t want to come to blows here …
We ask ourselves what mercy means for a priest; allow me to say it for us priests. For us, for all of us! Priests are moved before the sheep, as Jesus was, when he saw the people tired and exhausted as sheep without a shepherd. Jesus has the “depths” of God. Isaiah speaks so much of this: he is full of tenderness towards the people, especially towards the excluded, that is, towards sinners, towards the sick that no one looks after … So in the image of the Good Shepherd, the priest is a man of mercy and compassion, close to his people and servant of all. This is a pastoral criterion that I would like to stress a lot: closeness. Proximity and service, but proximity, closeness! … Whoever is wounded in his life in any way, can find in him care and attention … In particular, the priest shows the depths of mercy in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation; his whole attitude demonstrates it, in the way he welcomes, listens, advises, absolves … However, this stems from the way that he himself lives the Sacrament personally, that he lets himself be embraced by God the Father in Confession, and he stays in this embrace … If one lives this oneself, in one’s heart, one can also give it to others in the ministry. And I leave you with the question: How do I confess? Do I allow myself to be embraced? There comes to my mind a great priest of Buenos Aires, he is younger than me, he must be 72 … Once he came to me. He is a great confessor: his influence is always there … The majority of priests go to him for confession … He is a great confessor And once he came to me: “But Father …”, “Tell me,” “I have somewhat of a scruple, because I know that I forgive too much!” ; "Pray …. If you forgive too much …” And we spoke about mercy. At a certain point, he said to me: “Do you know, when I feel that this scruple is strong, I go to the chapel before the Tabernacle and I say to Him: Excuse me, your are at fault, because you gave me the bad example! And I leave at peace …” It is a lovely prayer of mercy! If one lives this oneself in Confession, in one’s heart, one can then give it also to others.
The priest is called to learn this, to have a heart that is moved. The priests who are – I permit myself the word – “aseptics” those “of the laboratory,” all clean, all good, do not help the Church. Today we can think of the Church as a “field hospital.” This, excuse me, I repeat, because I see it like this, I feel it so: a “field hospital.” There is need to cure the wounds, so many wounds! So many wounds! There are so many wounded people, by material problems, by scandals, also in the Church … Wounded people by the illusions of the world … We, priests, must be there, close to these people. Mercy means first of all to cure the wounds. When one is wounded, one needs this immediately, not analyses, such as the significance of cholesterol, of glycaemia … But the wound is there, cure the wound, and then we will look at the analyses. Then the specialist cures will be made, but first the open wounds must be cured. For me this, at this moment, is the most important. And there are also hidden wounds, because there are people who move away, so that their wounds are not seen … There comes to mind the custom, due to the Mosaic law, of lepers at the time of Jesus, who were always far away, so as not to infect …. There are people who move away because of shame, because of the embarrassment of having their wounds seen … And they move away perhaps with a mistaken face against the Church, but deep down, within there is the wound … They want a pat! And you, dear fellow brothers -- I ask you -- do you know the wounds of your parishioners? Do you intuit them? It is the only question …
3. Mercy means neither indulgence nor rigidity
We return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It often happens, to us priests, to hear an experience of our faithful who tell us that they met a very “strict” or a very “lenient” priest in Confession, rigorous o relaxed. And this is not good. It is normal that among confessors there are differences of style, but these differences cannot concern the essence, namely healthy moral doctrine and mercy. Neither the relaxed nor the rigorous <priest> gives witness to Jesus Christ, because neither one takes charge of the person he meets. The rigorist washes his hands: in fact he nails it to the law understood in a cold and rigid way; the relaxed one washes his hands: he is only apparently merciful, but in reality does not take seriously the problem of that conscience, minimizing the sin. True mercy takes care of the person, listens to him attentively, approaches his situation with respect and truth, and accompanies him on the path of reconciliation. And this, yes, is certainly tiring. The truly merciful priest behaves like the Good Samaritan … but why does he do it? Because his heart is capable of compassion, it is the heart of Christ!
We know well that neither indulgence nor rigor make holiness grow. Perhaps some rigorists seem holy, holy … But think of Pelagius and then we’ll talk. Neither indulgence nor rigor sanctifies the priests or the faithful! Mercy, instead, supports the path of holiness, it supports it and makes it grow … Too much work for a parish priest? It’s true, too much work! And in what way does he support the path of holiness and make it grow? Through pastoral suffering, which is a form of mercy. What does pastoral suffering mean? It means to suffer for and with the people. And this isn’t easy! To suffer like a father and a mother suffer for their children, I permit myself to say, also with anxiety …
To explain myself I will ask you some questions that help me when a priest comes to me. They help me also when I am alone before the Lord!
Tell me: Do you weep, or have we lost our tears? I remember that in the old Missals, those of another time, there is a very beautiful prayer to ask for the gift of tears. The prayer began like this: “Lord, you who gave to Moses the order to strike the stone so that water would come out, strike the stone of my heart so that tears …”, the prayer was like this, more or less. It was very beautiful. But, how many of us weep in face of the suffering of a child, of the destruction of a family, of so many people who do not find the way? The weeping of the priest … Do you weep? Or, in this presbytery, have we lost our tears?
Do you weep for your people? Tell me, do you pray before the Tabernacle?
Do you struggle with the Lord for your people, as Abraham struggled? “And if there were less? And if there were 25? And if there were 20?" … (cf. Genesis 18:22-33). That courageous prayer of intercession … We speak of parrhesia, of apostolic courage, and we think of pastoral plans, this is good, but parrhesia itself is also necessary in prayer. Do you struggle with the Lord? Do you argue with the Lord as Moses did? When the Lord was annoyed, tired of his people and said to <Moses>: “You be at peace … I will destroy all, and I will make you the head of another people.” “No, no! If you destroy the people, destroy me also!” But these <men> had <guts>! And I ask the question: Do we have the <guts> to struggle with God for our people?
I ask another question: In the evening, how do you end your day, with the Lord or with the television?
How is your relation with those who help one to be more merciful? That is, how is your relation with children, with the elderly, with the sick? Are you able to caress them, or are you embarrassed to caress an elderly person?
Do not be ashamed of the flesh of your brother (cf. Reflections in Hope, chapter I). In the end, we will be judged on how we were able to come close to “all flesh” – this is Isaiah. Do not be ashamed of your brother’s flesh. “To make oneself close”: proximity, closeness, to come close to a brother’s flesh. The priest and the Levite who passed before the Good Samaritan were unable to get close to the person ill-treated by bandits. Their heart was closed. Perhaps the priest looked at the clock and said: "I must go to Mass, I can’t be late for the Mass,” and he went away. Justifications! How many times we take justifications, to turn around the problem, the person. The other one, the Levite, or the doctor of the law, the lawyer, says: “No, I can’t because if I do this tomorrow I will have to go as witness, I will waste time …” Excuses! They have a closed heart. But the closed heart always justifies itself for what it doesn’t do. Instead, the Samaritan opens his heart, lets himself be moved in his depths, and this interior movement is translated into practical action, into a concrete and effective intervention to help that person.
At the end of times, only one who was not been ashamed of the flesh of his wounded and excluded brother will be admitted to contemplate the glorified flesh of Christ.
I confess to you, and it does me good, that to read the list on which I will be judged does me good: it is in Matthew 25.
These are the things that came to my mind, to share with you. <I am a bit early, as I came … [Cardinal Vallini: “A good examination of conscience”]. It will do us good. [Applause]
At Buenos Aires – I am speaking of another priest – there was a famous confessor: he was Sacramentino. Almost all the clergy went to confession to him. When, one of the two times that he came, John Paul II asked for a confessor in the Nunciature, he went to him. He was elderly, very elderly … He was Provincial of his Order, professor … but always a confessor, always. And he always had the queue there, in the church of the Most Holy Sacrament. At that time, I was Vicar General and I lived in the Curia and, every morning, early, I turned the fax on to see if there was anything. And on Easter morning I read a fax of the Superior of the community: “Yesterday, half an hour before the Easter Vigil, Father Aristi was missing, -- he was 94 – or 96? – years old. The funeral will be on this day ….” And on Easter morning I had to go to lunch with the priests of the Rest Home – I did so usually at Easter -- -- and then -- I said to myself – after lunch I’ll go to the church. It was a large church, very large, with a most beautiful crypt. I went down to the crypt and there was the coffin, only two elderly women were there praying, but no flowers. I thought: but this man, who has forgiven the sins of the entire clergy of Buenos Aires, also mine, does not have even one flower … I went out and went to a florist shop – because there are flower shops at intersections, on the streets, in places where there are people – and I bought flowers, roses. And I went back and began to arrange the coffin well, with flowers …. And I saw the Rosary he had in hand … and immediately there came to my mind -- that thief that we all have inside, no? --, and while I fixed the flowers I took hold of the cross of the Rosary, and with some force I detached it. And in that moment I looked at him and I said: “Give me half of your mercy.” I felt something strong which gave me the courage to do this and to make this prayer! And then, I put that cross here, in my pocket. The Pope’s shirts don’t have pockets, but I always carry here a small cloth case and since that day up to today, that cross is with me. And when I have an evil thought against someone, my hand always comes here, always. And I feel the grace! I feel that it does me good. How much good does the example of a merciful priest, of a priest who comes close to the wounds. …
If you think about it, you surely have known many, many, because the priests of Italy are good! They are good. I think that if Italy is still so strong, it’s not so much because of us Bishops, but because of the parish priests, because of the priests! It’s true, this is true! It’s not a bit of incense to comfort you, I feel it so.
Mercy. Think of the many priests who are in Heaven and ask them for this grace! May they give you the mercy that they had with their faithful. And this does one good.
Thank you so much for listening and for having come here.