Civiltà Cattolica has published a summary of some extended reflections given by Pope Francis in the course of a meeting with leaders of religious communities gathered in Rome for a conference at the Salesianum. While you may have seen shorter summaries of this article in popular media outlets, the context of the Holy Father’s words have often been lacking.
In order to obtain a fuller context, I would recommend the full article, which you can read in English by clicking here.
I find the Holy Father’s reflections on priestly formation reaffirming and filled with the candor we have come to expect from him. Recall that as a Jesuit superior he was involved in the delicate work of discernment and formation for many years.
The Holy Father touched on many themes relevant to our work at Saint John’s, but three of them have touched me deeply and invite you to join me in struggling with them in the days and months to come.
1. Reality by Experience
The Holy Father begins by reminding us that while preparation for ministry takes place through the classical four pillars, it is best accomplished with a view from the periphery and including a real contact with the poor. There is real food for thought for seminary formators here:
“This is really very important to me: the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.”
This view from the periphery gives us access to “a new language, a new way of saying things,” Pope Francis suggests.
I wonder whether the great work of recent years on the “New Evangelization” does not have something important to learn here. For so long we have been searching for “the rights words” to get people to come back to Church. But what the Pope seems to be telling us is that this language must be formulated from the point of view of those most marginalized and alienated from our modern culture and from our Church.
We who seek to bring people back to Church have something to learn from the enormous crowds who want to be near a Pope who kisses the man defaced with boils, cradles a handicapped child in his arms and spends more time at a General Audience with the sick than with visiting Bishops.
The Gospel of mercy, it seems, is conveyed more effectively by actions than by words. This may be the very key to the New Evangelization for which we have been so desperately searching.
2. Formation as a Work of Art
You have heard me speak before about one central and necessary tension in seminary life: of creating an atmosphere of trust and brotherly respect while, at the same time, maintaining the standards needed to call men to effective discernment and formation.
The Holy Father points out that true formation takes place when the formator takes on the role of a brother, not a police officer.
“..formators who are equipped really to accompany those in their charge. Dialog must be serious, without fear, sincere…Formation is a work of art, not police action. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the Pope of God. This really gives me goose bumps.”
The Pope’s “goose bumps” come from the fear of a priest who sees his job as law enforcement rather than conversion of heart, The parish priest is the one who lets go of everything to follow Christ, who so conforms his heart to Christ that he is able to be a ‘father, brother, traveling companion.’
That is why the Seminary culture must make clear that “problems are not solved simply by forbidding doing this or that. Dialog as well as confrontation are needed.”
If the formator does not seek to become the loving elder brother, seminarians will go underground and “grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes follow the rules smiling a lot, just waiting for the day when they are role: ‘Good. You have finished formation.’”
In other words, we are about forming human hearts, transforming the whole person to be a shepherd after Christ’s own heart. I am grateful to Pope Francis for the reminder that we are in the business not of forming “administrators and managers” but “father, brothers, and traveling companions.”
To be a priest means to have learned how to speak from the heart, indeed, to let Christ use our hearts to speak his love to a hurting world (cor ad cor loquitor). The Holy Father conveys this by telling the story of a mother whose tender glance saved her son:
“…a young man who lived with his mom, who was a widow and who did the laundry of wealthy families. This young man no longer went to work and lived in an alcoholic haze. The mom was not able to help him: every morning before leaving she would simply look at him with great tenderness. Today this young man has a position of responsibility: he overcame that problem, because in the end that look of tenderness from his mom shook him up. We have to recapture that tenderness, including maternal tenderness. Think of the tenderness that Saint Francis lived, for example. Tenderness helps to overcome conflicts. If this is insufficient, it might be necessary to change communities.”
And that’s the kind of priest the world needs today.