Pope Francis: ‘Spiritual Worldliness’ One of Greatest Dangers Facing Priests, the Church

In his comments on spiritual worldliness, the Pope drew heavily from the reflections of 20th-century theologian and cardinal Henri de Lubac.

Catholic priest celebrating Mass.
Catholic priest celebrating Mass. (photo: wideone / Shutterstock)

Spiritual worldliness is one of the most dangerous temptations facing priests and the Church because it “reduces spirituality to appearance” while disconnecting it from the Gospel, Pope Francis warned in a recently released letter to the priests of Rome.

“[Spiritual worldliness] leads us to be ‘workers of the spirit,’ men clad of sacred forms that actually continue to think and act according to the fashions of the world,” the Pope wrote.

The Pope’s message was communicated in a lengthy letter released by the Vatican on Monday but which was dated Aug. 5, the memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The Pope is the bishop of Rome and wrote the letter to provide what he described as the comfort of a “fraternal encounter.”

In his comments on spiritual worldliness, the Pope drew heavily from the reflections of 20th-century theologian and Cardinal Henri de Lubac, who wrote that the invasion of spiritual worldliness into the life of the Church would be “infinitely more disastrous than any simple moral worldliness” because spiritual worldliness “corrupts [the Church] by undermining her very principle.”

Pope Francis wrote that spiritual worldliness begins to take hold in the lives of priests not only through temptations to mediocrity, power and influence, and vainglory but also “from doctrinal intransigence and liturgical aestheticism,” which have the appearance of religiosity and even loving the Church but instead seek human glory and personal well-being.

“How can we fail to recognize in all of this the updated version of that hypocritical formalism which Jesus saw in certain religious authorities of the time and which in the course of public life made him suffer perhaps more than anything else?” the Pope wrote.

The Pope also took the occasion to address more deeply one of his perennial concerns, clericalism, which he described as a “specific form” of spiritual worldliness. Pope Francis wrote that clericalism falsely gives the impression that priests are “superior, privileged, placed ‘high’ and therefore separated from the rest of God’s holy people,” which the Pope said denotes “an illness that makes us lose the memory of baptism we have received.” 

Drawing from the prophet Ezekiel and St. Augustine, the Pope also told the Roman clergy that they must not seek primarily the “milk” of material gain nor the “wool” of praise and worldly recognition, which undermines “the priestly spirit, the zeal for service, [and] the yearning for the care of the people.”

The Pope also critiqued a “clerical spirit” among the laity, manifested by elitism, possessiveness of one’s ministry, and an inward focus, which he said leads to the loss of joy and gratuitousness and the rise of criticism and anger.

The antidote to spiritual worldliness and clericalism, the pope wrote, is “to look at Jesus crucified, to fix our eyes every day on him who emptied himself and humbled himself for us unto death.” Looking at the wounds of Jesus, Pope Francis said, helps the clergy learn “that we are called to offer ourselves, to make ourselves bread broken for the hungry, to share the journey of the weary and oppressed.” 

“It is not a question of leading back to a good observance or reforming external ceremonies but of returning to the evangelical sources, of discovering fresh energies to overcome habits, of introducing a new spirit into the old ecclesial institutions,” Pope Francis wrote.

Finally, the Pope encouraged the Roman priests to work together with the laity to initiate “synodal forms and paths” that would help to strip the clergy of worldly securities so that “the Lord’s consolation truly reaches everyone.”

“May the Church of Rome be an example of compassion and hope for all, with her pastors always, always ready and available to bestow God’s forgiveness as channels of mercy that quench the thirst of today’s man.”