In a meeting with all of Rome’s seminarians, Pope Francis spoke frankly of the challenges of community life, including the temptation to gossip and the importance of prayer.
“Seminary life, that is, community life, is very important. Community life is not paradise: rather, it’s purgatory,” he admitted as nearly 6,000 seminarians and priests laughed and cheered in agreement.
“Gossip is the plague of a community,” Pope Francis stressed to the men gathered in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall on May 12. “One speaks to (someone’s) face, always…don’t go a friend’s room to badmouth (someone else).”
He went on to note that “some say that gossip is a thing of women; but it’s also of men, of us! We gossip enough and that destroys community.”
The Pope’s meeting with the many seminarians from around the world who are studying in Rome was held in a casual style: he responded in an impromptu manner to their questions, at times with humor but at other moments quite seriously.
Fr. Eamon O’Higgins, a professor and spiritual father at the Maria Mater Ecclesiae International Seminary, told CNA, “the honesty with which the Holy Father spoke, spoke of his own experience, moved me considerably.”
Pope Francis used his own experiences to illustrate several pieces of advice he gave to the men.
Once when he was a young student of philosophy, the Pope recounted, he had gone to his spiritual father to confess that he was angry with someone. “And he asked me only one question: ‘Tell me, have you prayed for him?’ Nothing more. And I said, ‘no.’ And he remained silent. ‘But we have finished,’ he said to me.”
The seminarians laughed and then the Pope grew more serious.
“Pray, pray for all the members of the community, but pray especially for those with whom I have problems or for those to whom I don’t wish well, because to not a wish a person well sometimes is a natural thing, instinctive, but pray: and the Lord will do the rest,” he urged them.
The first question of the meeting had concerned academic formation. The Pope was quick to warn the men, who are studying for different academic degrees in Rome, against the danger of allowing the intellectual life to overshadow other areas of the priesthood.
“There is a danger of ‘academinanism,’” he cautioned, which must be avoided by living the “four pillars of priestly formation” - spiritual, academic, community, and apostolic.
“It’s true that here, in Rome, the intellectual formation is emphasized,” he acknowledged, “that’s why you were invited - but the other three pillars must be cultivated.”
The Pope said he could not understand a seminarian or priest who comes to study in Rome but “does not have a community life - who doesn’t work at, or does not care for- his spiritual life (in) daily Mass, daily prayer, lectio divina, personal prayer with the Lord - or an apostolic life.”
It is this integrated approach to priesthood that allows the ordained to truly understand the Church. “Studies are necessary, but also prayer,” the Pontiff affirmed.
“Understand the Church with the eyes of a Christian,” he urged the men. “Understand the Church with the mind of a Christian; understand the Church with the heart of a Christian; understand the Church with the action of a Christian. Otherwise, the Church is not understood, or is badly understood.”
One seminarian from Uganda who attended the audience told CNA that he was particularly struck by Pope Francis’ remarks regarding the dangers of intellectualism.
He said he would remember “the first challenge he posed us as seminarians who are studying here in Rome, not to look at only the academic part of it, but also to have… an integral formation so as to better serve the church of God back in our places, to carry the world back to God and God back to the world.”
Pope Francis also spoke at length about the importance of asking Mary’s intercession in life.
In difficult times, “the child goes to the mother, always. And we are children, in the spiritual life: never forget this!”
“In times of turbulence, go to seek refuge under the mantel of the Holy Mother of God. This is what the Russian monks say, and it’s true.”
Such intercession will help priests in their ministry in the Church, he explained. “A relationship with Mary helps us to have a good relationship with the Church: both are mothers.”
The Pope then joked, “To say it in another way: if you don’t want the Madonna as a mother, surely you will have her as a mother-in-law, eh? And this is not good!”