Pope Francis’ Critical Comments on Priests, The Anchor, February 7, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
February 7, 2014

“FLASH! Pope Francis speaks kindly about priests!” That was the headline on one of the most visited American priest’s blogs on January 27.

“During his daily off-the-cuff, non-magisterial sermonette today,” the blog entry began, “Pope Francis spoke about priests. And he didn’t bash them! In fact, as a refreshing change of pace today, he said some good things about priests,” italicizing the “good” to stress how anomalous he found such compliments to be.

“How many holy priests have given their lives in the service of the diocese, the parish!,” the Pope had said that morning. “How many people have received the power of faith, the power of love, [and] hope from these anonymous pastors!”

After mentioning that the newspapers often carry front page stories of priests who have sinned and committed crimes, the Pope added, “Tell me, though: do the papers carry news of what great charity so many priests in so many parishes of the city and the countryside perform? Of the great work they do in carrying their people forward? No? This is not news. It is the same as always: a single falling tree makes more noise than a forest that grows. Today … it will do us good to think of our brave, holy, good, faithful bishops and priests, and pray for them. We are here today thanks to them!”

These words from the Holy Father came as a much-welcomed surprise to some priests.  Over the course of the last 11 months, priests had begun to question whether Pope Francis was in fact more critical and negative about them than even the most anti-clerical secular news organizations.

Fr. Raymond de Souza, a pastor, university chaplain, eloquent scribe and one of my best friends, described in an October article in the National Catholic Register the disquiet many priests have been experiencing before the barrage of papal criticism. He noted:

“Pope Francis is capable of speaking with great tenderness about those far from the Church. When discussing his brother Jesuits, even those who sent him into exile and were active obstacles to the mission of Jesus Christ and the Ignatian charism, the Holy Father speaks with nuance and delicacy. Yet when he speaks of the parish clergy, his remarks are almost always critical, inveighing against the lazy priest in his rectory, unmoved by the suffering of the afflicted in need of mercy, reduced to a functionary who has become an obstacle rather than a conduit of God’s grace. Priests need to hear that to be challenged and corrected, but fallen men that we are, it is not easy. … Often the clergy feel singled out for criticism or feel underappreciated. Perhaps they ought to stop feeling sorry for themselves and ‘man up,’ but the phenomenon is real and explains part of the uneasiness some have with him.”

Over the last few months, I’ve been invited to different dioceses to do retreats and workshops for clergy and for seminarians specifically on Pope Francis and I can attest that among clergy and future clergy the “uneasiness” Fr. DeSouza describes is palpable.

To use Francis’ own analogy, many priests have felt that — at least until his Jan. 27 homily — the Pope has given exclusive attention to criticizing the relatively few priests who “fall” from priestly standards rather than on praising the “forest” of priests who are faithfully serving and working diligently to build up the Church.

At one clergy gathering, a priest complained that Pope Francis has mentioned on three occasions priests who turn the confessional into a “torture chamber,” as if, the priest said, there’s a worldwide “society of sacerdotal sacramental sadists.” Others have noted that it’s been tough to hear the Pope’s frequent censures of priests who are “greasy” rather than anointed, clerical rather than evangelical, spiritually worldly rather than filled with the Holy Spirit as have begun to wonder whether that the Pope’s emphasis indicated he believes the majority of priests fall into the former categories.

Perhaps most stinging of all to many priests were the Pope’s comments in an interview about those who “insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” and are “obsessed with the transmission of a disjoined multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” Priests who have suffered for their fidelity in preaching on these controversial issues have told me that they felt that the Holy Father was arming those who had long attacked them for mentioning these subjects at all. Rather than the Pope’s having their back, they felt as if they were being punched in the stomach.

What’s behind the preponderance of criticism of his priestly brothers? I don’t think it has anything to do with a negative view of the vast majority of his priestly confreres. Rather, as I’ve tried to convey to my brother priests on workshops and retreats, I believe it has to do with an important lesson he learned straight from the Lord.

In a 2006 retreat he preached to Spanish bishops, just published in English as In Him Alone is Our Hope, he gave a conference entitled, “The Lord who reprimands and pardons us.” In it, he commented:

“As we read the Gospels, a paradoxical pattern emerges: the Lord is more inclined to warn, correct and reprimand those who are closest to him — his disciples and Peter in particular — than those who are distant. The Lord acts in this way to make it clear that ministry is pure grace; it does not depend on the merits or competencies of the one chosen for the mission. In this context of the Lord’s gratuitous choice and his absolute fidelity, to be reprimanded by him means that one is receiving a sign of God’s immense mercy.”

The future Pope then took up several of the Lord’s reprimands, which he applied to the life and ministry of priests and bishops. Jesus rebuked his first priests for trying to dismiss the crowds, to dismiss children, to get rid of the Canaanite woman. He admonished them several times for their lack of faith based on fear. He chastised them for their rejection of the Cross because of a lack of hope. He reproved them for their failure to keep watch with him.

“We should not be afraid of [Jesus’] reprimands,” he told the bishops at the end of the conference, “for they are proof of the Lord’s closeness to us, that he takes us seriously. That he corrects us, just as he corrected Peter, is a sign of our friendship with him and our apostolic zeal! … He puts up with us and corrects us and always helps us grow, without ever belittling us or withdrawing his esteem and respect for us.”

That, I’m convinced, is what is behind his regular reprimands of his brother priests. Rather than negativity or bashing, there’s a special esteem, bond, closeness and friendship.

Just like with the first priests in the Gospel, however, it’s going to take some time for today’s priests to get used to that particular form of predilection!