· The Bishop of Rome spoke at length with priests in the Basilica of St John Lateran ·
The Church will not collapse because even today the holiness of many men and women is stronger than any scandal
Jesus' merciful gaze sustains the priest in the daily effort of his mission. So it has been for Jorge Mario Bergoglio these past 60 years. Having become Bishop of Rome six months ago, on Monday morning, 16 September, he took a decisive step to enter the heart of his diocese. In the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis had a long conversation with his clergy.
“I feel like a priest”, he confided. And tracing back through his personal experiences in Buenos Aires he revealed that he hasn't had the temptation to feel more important now that he is Pope. He asked the priests of Rome in particular to pray for him, especially on 21 September, the Feast of St Matthew, because it was on that day 60 years ago that he found his vocation to the priesthood.
In the first part of the meeting – opened by the Veni Creator Spiritus and a passage from John's Gospel – the Pope spoke primarily of the great labour of a priest in his mission among the people. Being a priest, he said, means working hard because people today have more needs than ever. And the feeling of weariness, he added, also includes for the priest strong questions about himself, about the goodness of his vocation and about the renunciation it requires, the very first of which is biological fatherhood. However it is a struggle that the priest lives and overcomes with his whole being. Among the various biblical examples mentioned, the Bishop of Rome pointed above all to Mary, who, as John Paul II said, had a “particular heaviness in her heart”. Moreover, prayers and closeness to others, starting with their own bishop, are an effective antidote for priests in the moments of greatest stress.
Pope Francis then answered the questions of five representatives of the Roman clergy, facing with them several issues central to the life of the Church. He immediately asked priests to be courageous, to have the proper creativity, which does not necessarily mean doing something new, to reach the necessary pastoral conversions. Parishes, he recommended, must always be open and welcoming, even with an available confessor. The lay people who see to the administration should also show people the welcoming face of the Church. Essentially it is a matter of always finding new paths so that the Gospel may be proclaimed and witnessed to in the realities of daily life. It is therefore important to seek new paths, suitable and adapted to the people who are addressed: facilitating, for example, participation in pre-baptismal courses and involving lay people in neighbourhood missions. In a large city like Rome, the Pope recognized, a cordial welcome is not always easy to organize. Yet, he warned forcefully, people should never have the impression that they are standing before some kind of official with economic rather than spiritual interests on their mind.
The Bishop of Rome then advised his priests keep the memory of the birth of their vocation alive, the moment of their first love for Jesus: it is the same as someone being in love and priests must always be in love. A Church without memory has no life. Memory saves us from slipping into the spirit of the world.
Crucial, too, is the ability to tell the truth without ever abandoning people to their trouble. Indeed, God's truth always goes hand in hand with personal care. It is not a matter of being lax or strict: neither is an attitude of mercy. On the contrary, it is welcoming others and making the journey with them, just as Jesus did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Pope Francis did not fail to approach the very grave problems and scandals, like pedophilia, that have hurt the Church. But the Church does not collapse, he assured a priest who had referred to the dream of Innocent III of Francis of Assisi holding up the dilapidated building of the Church. And she does not collapse because today, as always, there is great holiness in the Church: there are many women and many men who live their faith in everyday life. And holiness is stronger than scandal. In this regard, the Pope referred to a telephone conversation he had had the day before, Sunday 15 September, with a woman from Buenos Aires who had written him a letter on a paper napkin. The director of the Catholic television channel of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires who delivered it to the Pope on Friday. The woman, a janitor at the airport in the Argentine capital, has a son who is addicted to drugs and unemployed. And she works to support him and she has hope for the boy's future. This is holiness, the Pope said.
The encounter ended with three questions about marginalization. First of all, the Pope repeated words he had spoken at the Astalli Centre, praising the generosity of Rome but encouraging people to do more. And to the religious congregations with few vocations he again recommended that they not succumb to the temptation of clinging to money but have the courage to open their doors to the needy.
For the Pope reality is better understood from the peripheries than from the centre – seeing things from the centre risks succumbing to atrophy. The outskirts of society are not only geographical. Lastly, the Bishop of Rome concluded the meeting by addressing questions concerning the nullity of marriage, a theme that was also close to Benedict XVI's heart. Pope Francis announced that there are proposals and studies under way which the group of eight cardinals will discuss in October, as will the Synod of Bishops. These situations, he added, are a true and very real existential periphery that demands pastoral courage, always in truth and in justice.
Accompanying the Pope on his arrival – 20 minutes earlier than expected – was Cardinal Agostino Vallini, Vicar of Rome, who told the priests that this meeting had been scheduled by the new Bishop of Rome very soon after being elected. The diocese gave its Bishop an icon of St Francis holding up the Church, the work of Fr Massimo Tellan, a parish priest . At the end, before returning to the Vatican after more than two hours and 10 minutes, the Pope met with the Friars Minor who exercise their ministry hearing confessions in the Cathedral-Basilica of Rome. He asked them to be merciful.
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