· Vatican City ·

I am on a journey with you

 I am on a  journey  with you  ING-032
11 August 2023

Gratitude, first of all, for a precious and often hidden or little recognised service; then the reassurance of never being alone in the midst of “joys” and “sufferings”; finally, a warning against those temptations — denounced since the beginning of the Pontificate — toward “spiritual worldliness” and “clericalism” (from which the laity are not exempt), that risk diverting the ministry into forms of closure, elitism, possessiveness, arrogance. Hence, he invites them to work side by side with lay “brothers” and “sisters” to initiate “synodal forms and paths” and to be “servants” and not “masters”, to “wash the feet of our brothers and not crush them under our feet”.

There is a pastor’s attention and a father’s concern in the Letter that Pope Francis sent on Monday, 7 August, to all the priests of the Diocese of Rome — the Pope’s diocese, ‘reorganised’ last January with the new Apostolic Constitution In Ecclesiarum Communione, which brought about several changes within the Vicariate.

Entrusted to Mary, Salus
Populi Romani

The missive, which Pope Francis drafted in a familiar style in the midst of the numerous appointments of the wyd , bears the date of 5 August 2023, the memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, and is about seven pages long. The text, the Pope writes, is also the fruit of prayer before the Salus Populi Romani to whom — he assures them — he has entrusted all the priests of the Urbe: “I have asked her to guard and protect you, to dry your secret tears, to revive in you the joy of the ministry and to make you every day shepherds in love with Jesus”.

A ‘hidden’ ministry

For Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has always presented himself as the Bishop of Rome, it is precisely the latter that seems to be the greatest concern: namely, a disenchantment of priests with their vocation and ministry. It is, the Pope acknowledges, a ministry that carries a “burden of joys and labours, of hopes and disappointments”, and that often takes place amid “many labours” and “misunderstandings”.

He says “thank you” for this, and in fact repeats it several times in his letter. “Thank you for so much hidden good that you do”; “thank you” for a work that sometimes receives “no recognition”. “On the other hand”, he says, “our priestly ministry is not measured by pastoral successes (the Lord Himself had fewer and fewer as time went on)”.

Spiritual worldliness and clericalism

“I feel that I am on a journey with you and I would like you to feel that I am close to you in your joys and sufferings, in your projects and labours, in your bitterness and pastoral consolations”, says Pope Francis, reassuring them that he shares “the desire for communion, affective and effective”.

He then stigmatises what he says are the worst evils for priestly ministry: spiritual worldliness and clericalism — temptations that he has been denouncing for a decade. Indeed, the Pope apologises in some passages of the letter for repeating things that have already been said; but, he stresses, they are necessary admonitions. They are things, he writes, that are “priorities”.

“God asks us to go to the depths in the fight against spiritual worldliness”, he says, recalling Henri de Lubac, who warned of the dangers of this “way of life that reduces spirituality to appearance”.

“Spiritual worldliness leads us to be ‘merchants of the spirit’, men clothed in sacred forms who in reality continue to think and act according to the fashions of the world”.

Appearances of religiosity

“This happens when we allow ourselves to be fascinated by the seductions of the ephemeral, by mediocrity and habit, by the temptations of power and social influence”, Pope Francis writes. “And, again, by vainglory and narcissism, by doctrinal intransigence and liturgical aestheticism, forms and ways in which worldliness hides behind appearances of religiosity and even love for the Church, but in reality consists in seeking, instead of the glory of the Lord, human glory and personal well-being”.

Gentle temptations

Spiritual worldliness is a “gentle” temptation and for this reason “even more insidious”, he insists. “In fact, it creeps in, knowing how to hide well behind good appearances, even within ‘religious’ motivations”. It is, in short, one of those “elegant demons” he spoke of in his Address to the Roman Curia in 2022, that come and go and that “knock in a polite way”.

Showing themselves to be superior

When it enters the hearts of pastors, this worldliness “takes on a specific form, that of clericalism”, the Pope points out. “Excuse me for reiterating this”, he adds, “but as priests, I think you understand me, because you too share what you believe in in a heartfelt way, according to that beautiful, typically Roman (Romanesco!) trait whereby sincerity of the lips comes from the heart, and smacks of the heart!”.

“As an old man and from the heart”, he continues, “I feel I can tell you that it worries me when we fall back into the forms of clericalism; when, perhaps without realising it, we let people see that we are superior, privileged, placed ‘above’ and therefore separated from the rest of God’s holy people”.

Concerned with image and success

Clericalism is “a sickness”, Pope Francis repeats, that leads to “living authority in the various forms of power, without being aware of duplicity, without humility but with detached and haughty attitudes”.

The Pope cites the metaphor of “milk” and “wool” (that which nourishes and warms), found in Ezekiel and St Augustine, to warn against the risk of “feeding ourselves and our interests by covering ourselves with a comfortable life”.

“When we are only concerned with milk, we think of our personal gain; when we obsessively seek wool, we think of looking after our own image and increasing our success. And so we lose the priestly spirit”, he writes.

Looking to Jesus

According to Pope Francis, “praise”, “a sense of grace”, “amazement at the gratuitousness” of God’s love, help to stem these tendencies. But above all there is a “daily antidote”, which is “to look upon Jesus crucified, to fix one’s eyes every day on Him who emptied Himself and humbled Himself for us, even unto death”.

“This is the priestly spirit”, the Pope says: “making us servants of the People of God and not masters, washing the feet of our brothers and sisters and not crushing them under our feet”.


“Let us, therefore, remain vigilant towards clericalism”, is Pope Francis’ exhortation. Clericalism “can affect everyone, even lay people and pastoral workers: one can in fact assume ‘a clerical spirit’ in carrying out ministries and charisms, living out one’s calling in an elitist manner, closing oneself within one’s own group and erecting walls towards the outside, developing possessive bonds towards roles in the community, cultivating arrogant and boastful attitudes towards others”.

The “symptoms” are then evident: “complaining”, “negativity”, “chronic dissatisfaction with what is wrong”, “irony that becomes cynicism”.

“Thus”, the Pope writes, “one becomes absorbed in the climate of criticism and anger that one breathes around, instead of being the kind of people who, with evangelical simplicity and meekness, with kindness and respect, help their brothers and sisters to come out of the quicksand of intolerance”.

“Do not be discouraged!”

So many “frailties”, so many “inadequacies”… But “let us not be discouraged!” is the Pope’s word of encouragement.

“Let us roll up our sleeves and let us bend our knees (you who can!): let us pray to the Spirit for one another, let us ask Him to help us not to fall, in personal life or in pastoral action, into that religious appearance full of so many things but devoid of God, so as not to be functionaries of the sacred, but passionate heralds of the Gospel, not ‘clerics of State’, but pastors of the people”.

By Salvatore Cernuzio