Pope Francis and the Reform of the Priesthood


Pope Francis, greeting pilgrims gathered March 19 for his first Mass in St. Peter’s Square, kisses a disabled man on the forehead.
Pope Francis, greeting pilgrims gathered March 19 for his first Mass in St. Peter’s Square, kisses a disabled man on the forehead. (photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

If there were any doubt that Pope Francis was elected by the cardinals to lead the reform of the Vatican, he himself implied as much when he joked with journalists on March 16 that various cardinals had suggested he take the name “Adrian” after Adrian VI, a Pope who aggressively reformed the Church’s central administration after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

But the reform that man proposes is often just a small part of the renewal God disposes.

When St. Francis of Assisi, for example, heard Jesus say to him from the St. Damian Crucifix, “Rebuild my Church,” he thought that the Lord was asking him to rehabilitate that tiny dilapidated Church, but God actually had a much larger reconstruction project in mind: reshaping the living stones of the Church as a whole.

Likewise, even though the cardinals seem to have elected Pope Francis to address much-discussed issues within the Vatican Curia, he, like his papal patron saint, may be God’s instrument to bring something much larger back into shape.

One of the most urgent reforms facing him is the restoration of the moral credibility of the hierarchy, and especially of the priesthood. The scandals of clerical sex abuse and tales of Vatican corruption have not only severely undermined the Church’s moral authority, but given the impression that living by the Church’s teachings forms freaks and moral monsters rather than saints.

In his first couple of weeks as Pope, as well as his 14 years in Buenos Aires, Francis has been charting out the trajectory of priestly reshaping. We can focus on seven aspects of this needed renewal.  

The first is with regard to priestly simplicity.

Diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, but commit themselves to a simple lifestyle. In many places, this principle is given lip service, as members of the clergy drive fancy cars, frequent the finest restaurants and live in exquisite digs. Cardinal Bergoglio’s example of living in a small apartment rather than an episcopal palace, taking public transportation rather than a car with a driver and cooking for himself cannot help but lead priests to a sincere examination about the sincerity of their own spiritual poverty.

Second, throughout his time as archbishop, the future Pope spoke out forcefully against priests’ living a “double-life.” When he was asked in a 2010 book-length interview, El Jesuita, about the common saying in Argentina, “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in priests,” he replied, “Many of us priests do not deserve to have them believe in us.”

He wants to change that, by calling, helping and requiring priests to live with genuine priestly integrity.

In Buenos Aires, if the priests found themselves in difficult circumstances, he would help them address their situation, even if it meant their deciding to leave the priesthood. What he absolutely wouldn’t tolerate, however, was priests’ living incoherent lives, because he knew how much that harms and scandalizes God’s people.

This leads to the third aspect of his reform of the priesthood: bringing about priestly accountability.

Paying his pre-conclave bill at the priests’ residence personally immediately after his election was not just a nice gesture indicating a total absence of a sense of privilege, but it was a real sign that not even popes should consider themselves exempt from the demands of ordinary justice.

Fourth, he is likewise sketching out an authentic revision of the use of clerical power.

As he emphasized in the homily of his inaugural Mass, a priest’s authority must be linked to service, to the tender affection and protection given especially to the poorest, weakest, the least important and most easily forgotten. Like the Good Shepherd, the priest must seek to be the servant, not the lord, of the rest. This is the exact opposite of the haughty clericalism that in many places has hurt many and wounded the Church.

Fifth, he is calling priests to be men of profound mercy.

Whenever priests ask him for advice, he noted in El Jesuita, his answer is always, “Be merciful.” His motto Miserando Atque Eligendo (“Chosen Through the Eyes of Mercy”) highlights that his own vocation was born in an experience of God’s mercy, when as a 16-year-old boy he went to confession on the feast of the St. Matthew, the great convert. Pope Francis’ reminder in his first Angelus address that God never tires of forgiving us is a clear call to priests never to tire in faithfully dispensing that mercy, sacramentally and extra-sacramentally.

Sixth, he is calling all priests to live out the real spirit of the liturgy.

After decades of enduring liturgical craziness, many Catholic priests were grateful for Pope Benedict’s leadership in the liturgical reform of the reform. Many focused, however, on the external reverential markers Benedict and his liturgical team established: Communion on the tongue to those kneeling, the crucifix and candles on the altar, the use of chant and the beautiful vestments.

Pope Francis will continue the reform, but will focus much more on the interior markers. He shares with Pope Benedict a clear recognition that Jesus, not the priest, is the center of the liturgy and truly prays the Mass. He also shares with Benedict a profound love for the thought of the great liturgist Romano Guardini, on whom Pope Francis wrote his dissertation.

Finally, Pope Francis wants to form priests to be real agents of the New Evangelization.

A perennial temptation for the clergy, he stressed in El Jesuita, is to be administrators rather than pastors. Priests need to “go out to meet the people,” especially the lost sheep; the pastor who stays in his rectory, he declared, is not an “authentic pastor.”

He praised one priest for knowing his parishioners so well that he knew not only their names, but also their pets’ names. In an age in which so many priests, bishops and curial officials are enslaved by administrative tasks, Pope Francis is summoning them to reprioritize toward the Church’s evangelical mission.

Pope Francis knows that every true reform in Church history has begun with a reform of the clergy. And he’s already hard at work in seeking to bring it about.

Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts

and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.

He provided commentary for EWTN during

 the recent conclave that elected Pope Francis.