Franciscan lung to priesthood
The election of Pope Francis to the papacy was certainly a breath of fresh air within the Church, the mystical body of Christ. His closeness to the people is a fact that is hardly denied.
The Argentinian Pontiff’s Franciscan spirit is already leaving its healing traces everywhere.
Today, Maundy Thursday, it is apt to consider the extent to which the Franciscan spirituality can purify and consolidate the Catholic ministerial priesthood.
In the encyclical which speaks about the priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis caelibatus, Pope Paul VI wrote that “in the community of the faithful committed to his charge, the priest represents Christ. Thus, it is most fitting that, in all things, he should reproduce the image of Christ and, in particular, follow His example, both in his personal and in his apostolic life” (§ 31).
The priest should endorse the ethos of Christ himself who went to find the lost sheep.
As a man called to serve Jesus Christ in the believing community, the priest should imitate his Master’s sacrificial life by offering himself as a victim of love in order to make Christ’s incarnation continually present in this passing world.
In his enligthening book on the subject, The priest is not his own, Bishop Fulton Sheen clarified this important point when he said:
“Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that He was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the priest a victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of His incarnation.”
The Franciscan way can help a priest live this ongoing victimhood of his priestly life for God and others. In the prayer called A Salutation Of The Virtues, St Francis praises the six virtues of wisdom, simplicity, poverty, humility, charity and obedience.
Further down in his eulogy of the virtues, the Poverello claims that wisdom conquers Satan’s cleverness, simplicity overcomes worldly wisdom, poverty conquers avarice for the world’s riches, humility defeats pride, charity overcomes all diabolical as well as carnal temptations and, finally, obedience conquers personal preferences and reorients the priest to be led by the Holy Spirit instead.
For St Francis, there is no give and take or any other kind of senseless meddling with these virtues.
He says that “whoever has one (virtue) and does not offend the others, possesses all. Whoever offends one does not possess any and offends all”.
The basic principle for Francis, as was for Fulton Sheen after him, is “that there is no one in the whole world who can possess anyone of you (virtues) without dying first”.
Let’s be concrete. It is hard in today’s world not to conform to the current relativistic and hedonistic mentality where everything just goes fine. It is practically unconceivable to be focused all the time on God without trying to think, at least for a moment, of yourself.
Even more so, it looks utterly ridiculous to be humble and let someone else (the Holy Spirit) leading you in a culture that highly values total individual autonomy and independence. Furthermore, one can reasonably question the significance of dedicating one’s life to serve others instead of pursuing a career that would have earned him heaps of money!
But as priests we all perfectly know that real freedom in our priestly lives occurs when we serve the people entrusted to our care with the utmost generosity of Jesus Christ, who loved his own “to the end” (John 13: 1).
Our sins as priests make us realise that when we refrain from being Christ’s, Satan’s values of wordly wisdom, avarice, pride, hedonism, favouritism, in other words, all sorts of individualism, enter into our priestly heart and soul and simply destroy them altogether.
In his installation Mass homily, Pope Francis said that “only those who serve with love are able to protect!” The six Franciscan virtues can surely be of an outstanding aid to us priests in living our common calling of shepherding God’s flock.