VATICAN CITY — In his homily at Mass Tuesday, Pope Francis spoke harshly about what he considers one of the great dangers of clericalism: that it alienates members of the Church by refusing to be close to them and reinforces the belief that priests are above the laity.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Pope Francis has spoken out against clericalism — it could easily be considered one of the most frequently repeated topics of his pontificate; most recently, he did so with a group of Jesuits, but he has also strongly condemned it in the Church in Latin America.
The Pope’s homily Dec. 13 was given before members of the council of cardinals, an advisory body to the Pope, with whom he has been meeting this week. The council, which last met Sept. 12-14, has been helping to facilitate Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia.
After the September meetings, Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, secretary of the council of cardinals, published a summary of their work, linking the council’s actions to the “needs for a pastoral conversion” that Pope Francis discussed in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
Francis’ emphasis on the pastoral mission of the priest is again highlighted in his Dec. 13 homily. Criticizing the chief priests and elders found in the Gospels, he pointed out how even when the traitor Judas came back to them repentant, they turned him away, saying, “It’s your problem.”
The reason for this, the Pope said, is that they “had forgotten what it was to be a pastor” and instead “were the intellectuals of religion, those who had the power, who advanced the catechesis of the people with a morality composed by their own intelligence and not by the revelation.”
In this quote, Pope Francis condemns those who do not heed God’s command in Proverbs 3:5 to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; on your own intelligence do not rely.”
“Clerics feel they are superior — they are far from the people; they have no time to hear the poor, the suffering, prisoners, the sick,” Francis said.
Placing it in the context of Advent and people awaiting the birth of the Savior, Pope Francis said that the Father has “always sought to be close to us: He sent his Son. We are waiting, waiting in joyful expectation, exulting.”
“But the Son didn’t join the game of these people: The Son went with the sick, the poor, the discarded, the publicans, the sinners — and that is scandalous — the prostitutes. Today, too, Jesus says to all of us, and even to those who are seduced by clericalism: ‘The sinners and the prostitutes will go before you into the kingdom of heaven.’”
With his focus on the ministry of the priesthood as pastors, it isn’t surprising that Francis has criticized this superior attitude in his addresses to seminarians as well, telling a group from southern Italy Dec. 10 to be involved and get their “hands dirty.”
“Do not feel different from your peers,” or that you are better than other people, he said. “If tomorrow you will be priests who live in the midst of the holy people of God, begin today to be young people who know how to be with everyone, who can learn something from every person you meet, with humility and intelligence.”
An updated version of the Vatican’s document on priestly formation, released Dec. 7, touched on the issue of clericalism as well, emphasizing that, as Cardinal Beniamino Stella said, to be a good priest “a demonstrated human, spiritual and pastoral maturation is necessary.”
Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Stella was commenting on “The Gift of Priestly Vocation,” his department’s newest edition of the fundamentals of priestly formation, which says that seminarians “should be educated so that they do not become prey to ‘clericalism,’ nor yield to the temptation of modeling their lives on the search for popular consensus.”
“This would inevitably lead them to fall short in exercising their ministry as leaders of the community, leading them to think about the Church as a merely human institution.”
The document reiterates that priestly ordination, while making its recipient “a leader of the people,” should not “lead him to ‘lord it over’ the flock.”
At the heart of this message is an echo of what Pope Francis continues to repeat in his words to priests: There is a need for clergy who walk with the people, just as Jesus did, discarding no one.
Failing to live up to this calling results in priests afflicted with “the spirit of clericalism,” which, in the words of Pope Francis, is “a very ugly thing.”