The Impact of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Ministry on
Priestly Formation and Today’s Seminarians
The world was in shock when Pope Benedict XVI renounced the Chair of Saint Peter. I remember the morning of the day before Mardi Gras when some of you told me of the news since I had not yet turned the radio on. I stood in disbelief when hearing what was being announced. For the next couple of weeks, there was a sense of loss and grief. At least, this is how I felt. Then, we cheered in the family life room when it was announced that Pope Francis was our new Pope, there was a sense of joy and great anticipation.
I am aware that many of you were significantly influenced by the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Many of you have told me that the promotion of the sacred liturgy as a source for the new evangelization was something that brought inspiration to your vocation. Pope Benedict was promoting the sacred and reverence considering the debasement of culture. This inspired many of your vocations. The weakening of so many of our institutions of authority throughout the world was complimented by the projection of strength in the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. The signs and symbols of his office were generously used which again projected a type of strength and stability. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI was a theologian and the ways in which he was confronting relativism and secularism was influential to many of you.
And so, I thought it was important for us to reflect in these early months of Pope Francis’ apostolic ministry to consider the shift of focus that our Holy Father is bringing to the Church.
It was on March 13, 2013, that the Holy Spirit brought to the Chair of Saint Peter, Cardinal Bergoglio who chose the name Francis. As he was being presented to the world while standing on the loggia, he seemed almost bewildered standing without emotion.
The world was asking – who is this? This first Pope from the Americas, and the first non-European Pope in centuries. In some sense, the world is still asking the question about who this man is.
As the spring semester was coming to a close and you were heading off back to your diocese or parish assignments, a number of things were occurring during the summer months that brought further attention to the papacy of Pope Francis.
There was the amazing gathering of people for World Youth Day that attracted media attention over the world. On his way back from World Youth Day, the Pope made some remarks to reporters that caused many people to raise their eyebrow. Pope Francis was swiftly responding to the Vatican Bank scandal by addressing that situation in a particular way. Then, he announced the establishment of a “Kitchen Cabinet” of eight cardinals that would advise him regarding matters of governance. His daily homilies were striking to be that of a parish pastor. The fact that he continues to reside in a guest house has also attracted much affection. His deliberate projection of simplicity and humility is creating an interest of authentic leadership. The encyclical document letter Lumen Fidei introduced the pastoral and theological side of Pope Francis even though much of the document was already written by Pope Benedict XVI. His open letter to the atheist in Rome also attracted interest and even surprise. The interview to the Jesuit publication La Civilita exposed the mind of Pope Francis in what he sees as pastoral priorities for the Church. And, we are waiting for the post-synodal exhortation on evangelization which will further help us understand the direction our Holy Father is taking the Church.
So, how is all of this impacting you? How have you transitioned from the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis? What are your disappointments or fears? What is encouraging you in your formation? These questions are important for you to be asking and I am sensitive to the fact that many of you are still mourning the departure of Pope Benedict XVI. There is something very human and something very real about transition.
I would like to be sure that your transition is a healthy one and one that is rooted in ecclesial maturity. It could be very easy for us to start comparing one Pope to another, or expressing our disappointment of how he is refocusing attention to pastoral matters that might not seem to be a priority in your world. Loyalty is a virtue and obedience is a requirement. These are some points of reflection that need to be considered in how our discernment is impacted by the ministry of our Holy Father.
Missionary Spirit of the Church
There was an address this past summer that Pope Francis gave to the Coordinating Committee of CELAM. This is representative body of bishops from different episcopal conferences in South America. One might call it a super episcopal conference that represents the entire continent of South America. In this reflection, he is discerning with the bishops in South America how the Church can better serve all of the baptized, as well as all those people of good will who are not Catholic or Christian.
I would like to use his reflection as the basis for my conference as we better understand the thought of Pope Francis and how those reflections can positively impact our approach to priestly formation.
It is clear that Pope Francis is asking all of us to understand the missionary spirit of discipleship – a discipleship that is ecclesial and communal, while at the same time one that inspires us individually. Pope Francis detects that some Catholics, and some Catholic groups or movements can be tempted by a “privatized spirituality” that moves the person or movement into a type of isolationalism.
There needs to be a proper response to a trend of privatized spirituality that we are seeing in our society and sometimes we even see in the Church – a privatized spirituality that absolves us from community responsibilities and from collaboratively ministering to the needs of people. This concern is raised when one feels no need for community or when a movement sees itself as distinct from the wider community.
Pope Francis indicates that we need to reclaim a true sense of “communion.” Sometimes in our call to conversion and holiness, we imagine a lifestyle apart from the world. We look at what is happening in our world and we can be tempted to reject everything, to turn in on ourselves and keep ourselves away from the very world in which we are called to evangelize.
He reminds us in Lumen Fidei that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us in all aspects of our life. This includes the messiness of life. So often it is within that messiness that Christ is so clearly found. When Mary was carrying Jesus, she went in haste to serve the needs of Elizabeth. This is how the living Word is inspiring discipleship in Our Lady. We find Jesus in a manger, in the chaos of temple crowds, among the group of lepers, feeding the thousands, forgiving the adulterous woman, among the apostles gathered in the upper room, hanging on a cross on Golgotha, on the road to Emmaus, in the Upper Room, on the shore of a lake. Christ makes himself totally present in the messiness of life. Is this not the type of Church that Christ wants us to be. A Church that is always present in the midst of our people.
Blessed John Paul II reflected with us in his last Encyclical on the Holy Eucharist that it is only after the community of the apostles was established and gathered was the Eucharist and the priesthood instituted. It was at the end of his earthly ministry that Christ would give himself to us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And it was from this communio of apostles the Eucharist was established in their midst and from which the Church would spring forth.
Hence, Jesus Christ identifies and conjoins himself to the People of God who is the Mystical Body of Christ. And the Body of Christ incarnates herself into the human experience – for where man is found so too is the Church, the Body of Christ.
Constant Renewal in the Church
What enables the Church to constantly incarnate herself into the cultures of man is the principle of renewal by which she lives by. The Church is constantly calling for a renewal in herself because the members that comprise the Mystical Body of Christ are not yet perfected in holiness. We are all called to be saints and the journey towards holiness never ends until we rest in the Beatific Vision. Until this happens, renewal is an aspect of discipleship pursued each and every day.
To this end, the Church must always be on the cutting edge of how we proclaim the Gospel to the world. Here, Pope Francis explains that we must distinguish between a Reactionary Church and a Pro-Active Church. This requires a spirit of discernment. As future pastors and spiritual fathers, the virtue of discernment is an exercise in how we are attentive to the needs of the people. How does a father anticipate the ways in which he will raise and guide his children? In the same sense, a seminarian is learning how to cultivate a discerning heart so that he is able to discern the needs of the people and determine how the Gospel can be introduced, preached, and lived in the lives of the people he is serving. The Church Alive – a living and breathing Church among the People of God.
We must therefore avoid the temptation to simply create janitorial parishes, that is, parishes that simply provide basic spiritual and sacramental needs but is not really engaged in the neighborhood and society it exists in. These types of parishes have buildings within a neighborhood that have almost no impact on that neighborhood.
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism makes a point that before we can invite others into our household, our household needs to be cleaned-up. Again, this requires a deliberate type of discernment.
How might a seminarian understand this principle of renewal as a formational goal for the way in which he understand pastoral ministry? Stated another way, we distinguish again between the reactionary priest or the generative priest. Seminarians cultivate the human and theological virtues, by the grace of God, which moves the will to pursue these goods and moves the intellect to freely embrace a life of conversion all for the sake of pastoral ministry. At the end of the day, everything that we have belongs to Christ and Christ gives to the People of God his very priesthood.
The virtuous priest is the one who can discern, point out, and know what it is coming from God and what is coming from Evil. To this end he must react with good leadership. Responsive can be very good when it is virtuous, deliberate, and specific to the needs of the people. Being “reactionary” can be divisive. The reactionary priest is the one who preaches and points out everything that is wrong but fails to be a leader. He fails to get into the mess of the people in order to lead them out of the mess. It is easy to stand back and simply point out the problems and the faults of others without helping people to understand how to move from a life of sin to a life of holiness.
The generative priest, on the other hand, is the one who is motivated by love and therefore can risk his own life, his own reputation for another. He is willing to jump into the middle of the people to lead them rather than stand on the side yelling into the people. This takes a risk. This requires a spiritual renewal that begins in seminary formation.
At the heart of this renewal is the priest’s spiritual life. For those preparing for diocesan priesthood there is what we call “diocesan priestly spirituality”, which is not simply a mish-mash or a collection of spiritualities. Diocesan priestly spirituality has a specific foundation to it.
While a seminarian may draw from various spiritualities to live a “rule of life” or that gives form to his personal horarium, he must have a clear sense of how to live “diocesan priestly spirituality”.
In short, a diocesan priest’s prayer life and spiritual life are motivated by the very people he is serving. Their burdens, joys, and cares become his own. This is what makes his spirituality distinctive. He is among the people, he knows the people, and therefore his whole spiritual life is shaped and formed by the cares and sorrows and joys of his people.
As a father and mother take on the life of their children by the ways in which they are raising their children, the diocesan priest carries the people in his heart not as a practitioner, administrator, or professional minister but as a spiritual father and shepherd.
A principle of renewal for the Church and for priests is considering the principle of a Church and a priesthood that not simply reacts but rather leads and shepherds.
The Mercy of God
The Divine Mercy of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus gives meaning to how much God loves us and how much we are to love one another. As we hear in the Gospel of John: “For he so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.”
Truly the mercy of God is most profoundly displayed on a cross – where the perfect love between Jesus and the Father is professed; and the perfect love that God has for us in the death of Jesus.
Our culture and our people are awash with sin. There is so much darkness in our culture that we even sometimes speak about the culture of death. Freedom has been sorely abused and people have enslaved themselves into lifestyles that they believe make themselves more human when in fact they are becoming less human. Our hearts are heavy and we can be sad because the Gospel seems so clear and attainable but others see it as irrelevant.
Again, we hear from the Gospel of John: “The judgment of condemnation is this: the light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were wicked.” The mercy of God is explicit in priestly ministry. For a seminarian, he first receives the mercy of God as the first principle of conversion. There is no conversion without God’s grace since we cannot merit salvation and justification without the grace of God. As we experience the mercy of God in our own vocation, we then are able to bring that mercy to God’s people.
Pope Francis mentioned a couple of weeks ago that “shame” can be a grace. It moves us to know that we have stepped away from God and this embarrasses us in a way that wants us to come back to God. The prodigal son experienced shame and this shame brought him back to the father. What was the attitude of the father? How does the prodigal son’s father inspire us as future spiritual fathers?
What is the landscape of issues today that calls for a response: young people are confused about their sexuality; same sex unions equated to marriage; women who continue to have abortions; men who are addicted to pornography; and married couples practicing contraception. Again, we can be priests of reaction and judgment or we can be priests who make known to the People of God the mercy of God.
Pope Francis stated not long ago that we need a Church that can warm hearts and heal wombs. See the person first – who is this person? How has this person been loved by God? How can I love this person as a believer in God? How can I love this person as a man possessing the charism of celibacy? Do we see people’s sins first or do we see the person first? We then love that person and they receive from us a true shepherd’s fatherly love. The prodigal son left the household but always knew he was welcomed back because the father made this very clear.
We cannot tolerate sin or allow people to think they can live lives of sin, purposely, explicitly and deliberately, while also at the same time being a Christian. This type of pluralism has hurt the credibility of the Church. Simply put, this is called hypocrisy. For example, when the HHS mandate was approved by the government, so many politicians were telling our bishops that most Catholics practice contraception anyway therefore why get so upset over the HHS mandate. It is true that our teaching authority in the Church has been less credible because of the pluralism that has been tolerated and exists in the Church.
But I don’t think the solution is to create priesthood where we compensate by making judgments and pointing out sin in a way that drives people away from the Church. Can we first see the person for who they are and love that person, and then at some point be able to help that person understand what sin is? Is it not true that we want people to experience the mercy of God? Is it not true that we want people to understand that their sins can be forgiven? If God’s mercy is not made known to them, then what will only be known to them is a judgment that leaves them behind and not welcome into the Body of Christ.
We want to be able to convince people that the Church is ready to welcome them and that God’s mercy can help warm their heart and heal their wombs so they can embrace conversion.
Much of today’s sin is the result of a type of nihilism and utilitarianism by which the person loses their individual uniqueness to the proliferation of sin. We must be careful that we too do not act as the worldly do – seeing the sin, condemning the sin, but never seeing the person, to see in that person the face of God. When we fail to see God in that person, we can treat that person with the same contempt that socialized sin treats that person – as nothing!
The Principle of Collaboration
Now I know you guys get a little nervous when you hear the word “collaboration”. Sometimes we may think collaboration is code for a reductive view of ordained ministry. I can sympathize that abuses have occurred in which so-called collaboration has distorted the view of Holy Orders. However, when collaboration is properly exercised, it respects the roles of all engaged in ministry.
Collaboration for us Christians begins with our collaboration with God’s plan – it is His plan but we are invited into it — which requires a proper and ordered freedom. We have to freely, without any conditions, embrace God’s plan for us and for His Church. We rely on God, His priesthood, and His Church in order for us to collaborate with His plan. And so, how do we bring this to prayer? How do we pray about receiving God’s plan in our life? How do we see ourselves as collaborating with God’s plan? The principle of collaboration begins with the understanding that all ministry is rooted in God’s plan and our participation in His plan is only made possible by God’s grace. If we forget this principle, then we can think that ministry is about us rather than about God.
How do I see my vocation as belonging to God and His Church? If the Church is the venue by which I am called to live out my vocation, how do I see myself collaborating with the Church?
And since my immediate experience of the Church is at the seminary, I must be able to understand the multitude of relationships that exist at the seminary. What is my relationship with my superiors and to those whom I am entrusted? Are these freeing relationships? Do I see myself placing my hope and trust in God by placing myself in the hands of those who are charged with my formation? Do I trust that God will work through them – even through their own weaknesses and sins?
There is a certain collaborative attitude which is rooted in human freedom. There is a certain collaborative attitude that is rooted in my prayer. From freedom and prayer, and a collaborative attitude that I have towards my discernment in priestly formation, will come a collaborative attitude in the way in which I envision the exercise of priestly ministry. This freedom is rooted in the theological understanding of Divine Providence – everything belongs to God and my participation in His plan is total gift, total invitation. If I think I “own” God’s plan or own His priesthood, His Church, I am not free. I am possessive.
How do I see myself “free” in a formation program? When I see myself in the seminary formation program, am I playing a game? Am I authentic with the relationships I am involved with at the seminary? Imagine living in the seminary for many years not trusting the people around me – after years of this disposition, it will affect the way in which I will relate with people after ordination.
Do I trust my staff? Do I trust women? Do I trust the pastoral council? Do I trust the finance council? Do I trust parish committees?
Priests are members of the hierarchy. The word “hierarchy” comes from the Greek which means “holy ordering.” The ordering of gifts and charisms is a part of leadership. Strong, vibrant leadership is reflected in the way in which pastors are able to identify the gifts and charisms of the lay people that are required for building up the community. However, not all gifts can be used at the same time and therefore discernment is required on the part of leadership.
For one who mistrusted authority in the seminary, this person is often the one who abuses authority. In his desire to correct the many wrongs of society, and even the pastoral wrongs of pluralism practiced by some in the Church, he may come off as authoritative not tolerating the mistakes or misgivings of other people. This can lead to a very dangerous and unhealthy exercise of priestly ministry.
Recognizing that the Church and the priesthood all belong to God, a priest does everything possible to build up the Body of Christ with the very people he is serving. Collaboration means he will use all of the gifts, charisms, skills, and talents of the people for the good of the Church. If we believe we can build a Church without the gifts and charisms of the lay people, then we are denying not only what God expects in building up the Body of Christ but we are denying the people from living those gifts as God has blessed them to live.
Prudence is a virtue exercised alongside leadership and discernment. Seminarians are learning how to discern – how to recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in other people. This discernment is rooted in his identity as a future shepherd, a future spiritual father; a father who can see in his people the work of the Holy Spirit.
I once heard Fr. Deo state that the accumulation of knowledge informs us that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom informs us that we do not place it in a fruit salad. We can apply this saying to pastoral leadership. We can have all of the theological knowledge that informs us who Jesus Christ is but if we lack wisdom, then we will not be able to bring the person of Jesus into the lives of other people in a manner that allows the people to truly experience Jesus in our priesthood.
Yes, we can exercise the sacraments faithfully; we can preach the Gospel faithfully; and we can celebrate the sacred mysteries with great reverence and awe. However, if we lack the wisdom of how to meet people where they are at, to invite people into ministry that builds up the Body of Christ, then all the knowledge that we have accumulated is for personal use rather than for the object of pastoral ministry. And the object of pastoral ministry is the salvation of souls.
What is my pastoral attitude toward the sinner? What is my attitude toward leadership in the Church? What is my attitude toward the messiness of life and seeing myself in the midst of it in order to shepherd people from it? How do I see myself working shoulder to shoulder with other people as we minister as a community of disciples living in the world? The Word became flesh and dwells among the messiness of humanity. This is where the priest finds himself.
Relationship with Culture
The Second Vatican Council stated “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (GS1).
Culture is not an accident in human nature – it is intended by the Creator’s design for it is within a culture that man discovers his sublime vocation, the reason for his existence, and it is the venue in which he strives to live a life of holiness and to be a saint. Therefore, the Church has a mission to be able to live faith within culture rather than apart from culture.
Pope Francis writes in Lumen Fidei that the light of faith is to shine forth in the culture of man. Faith cannot be disassociated from the Church or from culture hence the pilgrim Church is immersed within the culture and conditions of man.
A Gnostic view is that the Church is a shining city outside the conditions of man. This misses the Incarnational point that Jesus was like us in all things but sin. While the Church is infallible and indefectible, most of her members are clearly not. A missionary discipleship is a discipleship found and lived among the People of God. Pope Francis explains: “It is important to know where the Evil spirit is afoot in order to aid our discernment. It is not a matter of chasing after demons but simply one of clear-sightedness and evangelical astuteness.”
Pope Francis warns that when the Church seeks to remove herself apart from the culture of man then the Church will be tempted. The goal of these temptations is to slow down, bring us to a halt, and to hold us back from the process of pastoral conversion. A quiet Church is often the Church adorned, it is a museum. It is something that we look at rather than embrace. The Church becomes a decoration. There are certain temptations that occur when the Church keeps herself locked up in the sacristy or in the rectory. The same thing can be said of the priesthood – a priesthood that is a decoration, something adorned and to be looked at but disassociated from the realities of the people. When the priesthood is not anchored among the people, Pope Francis identifies certain temptations that can arise.
Let us reflect on what some of those temptations can be and how these temptations could rub off on our discernment and priestly formation.
The first temptation is turning the Gospel into an ideology. The Gospel becomes an ideology when we interpret the Gospel apart from the Gospel or when we interpret the Gospel apart from the Church. You are familiar with the pastoral method to see, judge, and act. This is how pastoral ministry works in the Church. We see what we see, then we make judgment on what it is that we see, and then we act in a way that brings the Gospel into the situation.
And so the question is – which lens are we looking through? Is it the lens of the Church, the Church of today, or some other lens? Other lenses reduce to Gospel to an ideology. Pope Francis cites four ideological tendencies that we might see in the Church today.
Sociological reductionism: This is when we interpret the pastoral situation through the social sciences. Rather than aiding the theological interpretation, the social sciences replace the theological interpretation or we have and incorrect understanding of what we mean by “pastoral.” This can be seen from the market liberalism to the Marxist categorization.
Psychologizing: Here the Gospel becomes an elitist hermeneutic which ultimately reduces the encounter with Jesus to a process of self-awareness. This leads to self-centered spiritualities. This has nothing to do with transcendence rather it leaves the person gazing downward and inward, rather than outward and upwards.
Gnostic solution: Elite groups positioning themselves in the Church as having a more orthodox spirituality. These folks or groups are often caught up in a pre-occupation with certain disputed pastoral questions. These are the enlightened Catholics.
The Pelagian solution: This appears as a form of restorationism. Pastoral response to the sinner is purely a disciplinary solution – pursuing the doctrinal safety net to avoid me from getting too dirty or messy with people’s problems. This ideology keeps us focused in a rear view mirror, it is a process of regression, inversion, and leaves us in a static moment.
The second temptation is to minimalize the dynamism of the Gospel, Church renewal, and engagement with all aspects of culture. This can also lead to functionalism. This is the temptation that does not want us to be bold and creative. Pope Francis uses the example that we can be more interested in fixing the potholes rather than keeping an eye on the road itself. We spend so much energy and time with committees, process, and programs rather than looking at the big picture of how to lead people to Christ. This also can create a sense of efficiency and functionalism of how the Church operates rather than leaving room for mystery and dynamism. Pope Francis states that this temptation can reduce the Church to the structure of an NGO.
A Theology of Prosperity: When the Church functions more like a business organization rather than a community of faith. In priestly formation, this can lead the seminarian to certainly master all of his academic work but in a way that he doesn’t allow the mystery of what he is learning to touch his heart. This can lead to one who is very familiar with all of the rubrics and the detail of ritual but doesn’t allow those mysteries to touch his heart. I once knew of a parish in Pittsburgh that claimed to have over 60 organized ministries with almost all of the active parishioners as members of one of these ministries. There is no doubt that it was a very well organized parish with very well organized ministries. There were no vocations to the priesthood or consecrated life in almost 50 years. Very few people were coming to the RCIA program. Because this was seen as an enlightened parish, there was no devotion to the Holy Eucharist outside of Mass.
The neighboring parish which had very little organized ministry was cranking out vocations to priesthood and consecrated life. There were many people going through the RCIA program. They had some very strong spiritual and Eucharistic devotion experiences in place that seemed to describe this parish as a people in prayer. Both parishes were lacking: either the organized ministries that would provide outreach to people or the promotion of prayer and devotion which gives meaning to our ministry. In any case, it’s a reminder that charisms do need to be institutionalized and yet at the same time the experience of mystery and awe is very much a part of what the Church brings to the lives of people.
A third type of temptation that can be seen in the Church today are new forms of clericalism. It was Blessed John Paul II who warned that collaboration does not mean the clericalization of the laity or the laicization of the clergy. Rather, it is the ordained and non-ordained each serving the Church from their perspective role. Pope Francis states that there can be a lack of maturity and freedom by both clergy and laity that result in new types of clericalism.
A radical individualism as a result of no need for community leaves the priest thinking that he can exercise ministry apart from the community of brother priests and even his own bishop. Lay faithful who feel they have no need to be given a mandate to carry out ministry from the clergy. Priests who project a self-authored priesthood that is remote from the needs of the people. Lay faithful who fail to live out the apostolate boldly in the temporal world only finding that their self-worth in what they can be doing on the grounds of the parish. All of these new forms of clericalism can distract us from the missionary boldness of the Gospel.
Moving to the Advent Season, the Church lifts up in voice the hymn Emmanuel, Emanuel – God is With Us. Evangelization is indeed that personal encounter with the Lord but an encounter that takes place in the midst of the community. God is with us and God is near us in his body that we call the Church.
Today, Pope Francis is our universal shepherd. The Holy Spirit has brought this priest to the throne of Saint Peter. Pope Benedict continues to live his priesthood in solitude, prayer, and fasting for the good of the Church. There are graces the Church is surely receiving from the life and ministry of Pope Benedict. And, there are graces God is showering upon His Church from the apostolic ministry of Pope Francis.
What does all of this mean for you? These are exciting moments for the Church. Let us be attentive to how the Enemy will want to distract us, cause division in the Church, to create disunity among us. We pray for Pope Francis. Long live the Pope. Let us learn how his ministry and example can influence our own understanding of ministry as we discern the needs of the Church in the circumstances of today.
Let us praise the Lord and give Him thanks!