By Hannah Brockhaus
Pope Francis published a letter Sunday to encourage all priests to remain steadfast and prayerful during this time of purification after revelations of abuse by some priests, so that there may be a renewal of holiness in the priesthood.
“I am convinced that, to the extent that we remain faithful to God’s will, these present times of ecclesial purification will make us more joyful and humble, and prove, in the not distant future, very fruitful,” the pope wrote in a letter published Aug. 4.
Encouraging priests to reread the 16th chapter of Ezekial, he said, “let us not grow discouraged! The Lord is purifying his Bride and converting all of us to himself. He is letting us be put to the test in order to make us realize that without him we are simply dust. He is rescuing us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearances.”
“It is the history of the Church, and each of us can say it is our history too,” he continued. “In the end, through your sense of shame, you will continue to act as a shepherd. Our humble repentance, expressed in silent tears before these atrocious sins and the unfathomable grandeur of God’s forgiveness, is the beginning of a renewal of our holiness.”
Pope Francis published the letter on the 160th anniversary of the death of the Cure of Ars St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests.
He said the letter is for all priests, both diocesan and religious, and he sent it “to thank you in the name of the holy and faithful People of God for all that you do for them, and to encourage you never to forget the words that the Lord spoke with great love to us on the day of our ordination. Those words are the source of our joy: ‘I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.’”
In the six-page letter, Pope Francis wrote about the pain felt by victims of sexual abuse, abuse of power, and abuse of conscience by priests, and noted that “this pain has also affected priests.”
He said in his pastoral visits in Rome and in other meetings and personal conversations, many priests have shared their outrage at the abuses committed and their frustration that even if they have been faithful, they must confront the damage done and “the suspicion and uncertainty to which it has given rise.”
“Without denying or dismissing the harm caused by some of our brothers, it would be unfair not to express our gratitude to all those priests who faithfully and generously spend their lives in the service of others,” Francis said.
“They embody a spiritual fatherhood capable of weeping with those who weep. Countless priests make of their lives a work of mercy in areas or situations that are often hostile, isolated or ignored, even at the risk of their lives,” he said. “I acknowledge and appreciate your courageous and steadfast example; in these times of turbulence, shame and pain, you demonstrate that you have joyfully put your lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel.”
The pope reflected at length on the theme of gratitude, especially gratitude for one’s vocation. He urged priests to remember, especially in times of trial or difficulty, the moments when they clearly heard the Lord calling them to the priesthood, and they responded ‘yes.’
“Gratitude is always a powerful weapon,” he underlined.
He thanked priests for their fidelity to their commitments, for their joy, and for working “to strengthen the bonds of fraternity and friendship with your brother priests and your bishop.” The pope also encouraged them to seek wisdom from the elderly.
He expressed his gratitude for their witness of persistence and patient endurance in ministry, for celebrating the Eucharist every day, for hearing Confessions, and for proclaiming the Gospel. “Thank you for the times when, with great emotion, you embraced sinners, healed wounds, warmed hearts and showed the tenderness and compassion of the Good Samaritan,” he said.
“How powerful is the example of a priest who makes himself present and does not flee the wounds of his brothers and sisters!” he said. “It mirrors the heart of a shepherd who has developed a spiritual taste for being one with his people, a pastor who never forgets that he has come from them and that by serving them he will find and express his most pure and complete identity.”
“This in turn,” he stated, “will lead to adopting a simple and austere way of life, rejecting privileges that have nothing to do with the Gospel.”
The pope also expressed his thanksgiving for the “holiness of the faithful People of God,” saying “let us be grateful for each of them, and in their witness find support and encouragement.”
Francis said he has the desire to comfort and encourage priests when “faced with painful experiences.”
“The mission to which we are called does not exempt us from suffering, pain and even misunderstanding,” he said. “Rather, it requires us to face them squarely and to accept them, so that the Lord can transform them and conform us more closely to himself.”
He said one good test of a pastor’s heart is how he confronts suffering. Whether he ignores it or draws near in the wrong way, for example, viewing it in the abstract or thinking things such as “nothing can be done.”
These attitudes prevent priests from having the compassion they need to confront both their own wounds and the wounds of others, he said.
According to the pope, acedia is another “subtle and dangerous attitude,” which can infect a priest.
He quoted Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík, who he said described acedia in these terms: “If we are assailed by sadness at life, at the company of others or at our own isolation, it is because we lack faith in God’s providence and his works… Sadness paralyzes our desire to persevere in our work and prayer; it makes us hard to live with… The monastic authors who treated this vice at length call it the worst enemy of the spiritual life.”
“Let me repeat: in times of difficulty, we all need God’s consolation and strength, as well as that of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “All of us can benefit from the touching words that Saint Paul addressed to his communities: ‘I pray that you may not lose heart over [my] sufferings’ (Eph 3:13), and ‘I want [your] hearts to be encouraged’ (Col 2:22).”
Pope Francis recalled the importance of prayer, encouraging priests to let Jesus heal and transform them through it.
“At times of uncertainty, remember those words: ‘I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail (Lk 22:32). The Lord is the first to pray and fight for you and for me. And he invites us to enter fully into his own prayer,” he stated.
A relationship with Jesus is of the utmost importance for a priest, he said. He also told priests to not neglect spiritual direction.
Francis concluded his letter by reflecting on the Blessed Virgin Mary. “She, the woman whose heart was pierced, teaches us the praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present,” he said. “Her entire life was contained in her song of praise. We too are called to sing that song as a promise of future fulfilment.”
In times of weariness, or temptation to apathy or self-pity, turn to Mary, he urged, and “take up her song of praise.”
“May we allow our gratitude to awaken praise and renewed enthusiasm for our ministry of anointing our brothers and sisters with hope,” he said. “May we be men whose lives bear witness to the compassion and mercy that Jesus alone can bestow on us.”