During a meeting with a group of French bishop on Saturday, Pope John Paul II stressed the need to strengthen priestly identity as the only way to reverse the alarming decline of vocations in the regions of Toulouse and Montpellier.
The Pontiff told the French bishops, “I easily understand how you can feel demoralized in the face of this situation, but I invite you to hope and to an ever more resolute commitment in favor of the priesthood.”
He noted that “the crisis the Church is going through is in large part due to the repercussions of social changes, new forms of behavior, the loss of moral and religious values and a widespread consumeristic attitude.”
The Pope urged the bishops to clarify and then communicate the image of a priest as a man who sees the priesthood as “great and beautiful” and demonstrates “enthusiasm for the mission of the Church.”
A priest's calling is to serve his fellow man and it is here that he will find “joy and equilibrium,” he added.
A risk for priests in modern society, said the Holy Father, is that “of neglecting their spiritual life or allowing it to become weak. The heavier the burden, the more important it is to be close to the Lord in order to find in Him the grace necessary for their pastoral service and their welcome by the faithful.”
John Paul II then spoke of the “essential dimension” of priestly life, “celibacy and chastity,” saying this is a much-misunderstood concept and too often is seen as an “impediment” to service. “I invite priests to be diligent in the face of worldly seductions and to regularly make an examination of conscience in order to live ever more deeply in fidelity to their commitment which conforms them to Christ, chaste and totally dedicated to the Father.”
Young priests must be accompanied, he said, and suggested having them accompanied by older, wiser priests and perhaps even “appropriate psychological and spiritual aids.”
“Growing de-Christianization is the major challenge at the moment,” the Holy Father said in concluding remarks, “and I ask you to underscore this, mobilizing all the priests of your diocese in this regard.”
What is urgent is “the evangelization of a world that not only does not know the basic aspects of Christian dogma, but has in great part lost even the memory of the cultural elements of Christianity,” he concluded.