Fr Bernard Healy
One drawback of Pope Francis’s pungent criticisms of the failings of clergy is the accusation that he is more inclined to criticise priests than encourage. In fairness to the Holy Father, it’s hardly his fault that his more colourful sayings make bigger headlines than the many positive things he has said about the work of ordinary priests. Therefore his ‘Letter to Priests’ issued earlier this month is deserving of attention as he makes a particular point of offering encouragement.
The Pope acknowledges the pain of priests who feel under a cloud of suspicion because of the sins of others, and of those who feel lost when facing the challenge of restoring Faith and hope in the hearts of the faithful. However, the letter is more than just a welcome word of reassurance; Francis also offers some spiritual signposts for clergy “in the trenches”.
He reminds priests experiencing a time of trial to deliberately remember those moments in their lives when they were particularly aware of God’s calling and the countless times when God works through them in their ministry. In doing this, Pope Francis is touching on one of the great lessons of the Bible. Much of the Old Testament can be understood as the Chosen People’s failure to remember. It is when the people forget the past goodness of the Lord that they go astray. The life of Faith is all about trusting in the goodness and promises of God that have been made real to us in the past, particularly when they seem invisible in the present; the one sure path through current difficulties is in the hope and gratitude that comes from recalling God’s love and faithfulness.
Pope Francis also diagnoses acedia as a perennial threat to the priestly life. By acedia he means a kind of sadness and disappointment with ourselves and the Church that tempts us to neglect our work and prayer because they seem futile in the face of the challenges we face. Identifying the shadow of acedia should spur us to realise more urgently our dependence on Christ as the one source of our hope.
In short, as well as encouraging priests, Pope Francis is asking for a deliberate renewal of our priestly spirituality for the sake of the Church.
Priests don’t drop down from heaven; they come from the body of the Church”
The letter is worthwhile reading for laity too. The acedia that he writes about can paralyse the Church as a whole. We grow used to things going badly and expect no better, or look for solutions in the wrong places, rather than seeing a challenge to turn more energetically to Christ through Christian action and deeper prayer.
Many communities are rightly worried about their parishes losing out as the number of priests declines. In some places this is stoically accepted and local communities adjust.
In other places, there is a huge anger as though bishops should be capable of generating clergy out of thin air.
Are there any parishes who choose a third way by realising that the crisis is also about the shortage of practicing and believing Christians in the pews? Priests don’t drop down from heaven; they come from the body of the Church, and as long both clergy and parishioners are weighed down by acedia, a renewal of priestly vocations seems unlikely.
In his letter, Pope Francis makes reference to the novel The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. Written just before World War II, it tells the story of a young priest who struggles with ill-health, weakness and the contempt of an indifferent parish. Even though the priest’s life and ministry seem suffused with defeat, Bernanos skilfully discloses the reality of an invisible grace at work in the midst of human weakness, and helps us understand why it should matter to us that Christ took on our frail humanity and went to the Cross.
I have been following recent debates about changes to Irish seminaries with scepticism. Since the flow of seminarians has been reduced to a mere trickle I feel as though energy would be better focussed on improving parishes and encouraging a greater culture of vocation in the Church. That is a much more urgent issue.
To that end, the spiritual renewal of the hundreds of clergy and religious working in Irish parishes would be a much higher-impact strategy. As I have written before, the decision to ignore Pope Benedict’s 2010 request to take concrete steps in this direction is baffling.