There are some priests and bishops who do not understand this, Pope Francis reflected, calling it a “tragedy of today.”
The pope said that the Church was living through a time of “epochal change,” but people must not seek comfort in either the past or the future.
“I prefer instead the response born of a trusting acceptance of reality, anchored in the wise and living Tradition of the Church, which enables us to put out into the deep without fear,” he said.
Pope Francis warned his listeners that many crises in the priesthood resulted from a poor prayer life and a lack of intimacy with God, which reduces the spiritual life “to mere religious practice.”
“The intimacy born of prayer, the spiritual life, concrete closeness to God through listening to his word, the celebration of the Eucharist, the silence of adoration, entrustment to Mary, the wise accompaniment of a guide and the Sacrament of Reconciliation… Without these ‘forms of closeness,’ a priest is merely a weary hireling who has none of the benefits of the Lord’s friends,” he said.
Prayer is also a bishop’s “first task,” he said, adding: “He must increase, I must decrease, says St. John the Baptist.”
To have a good relationship with God, finding moments of silence throughout the day, is key, he noted.
This silence, he said, is often avoided because it can be uncomfortable. Instead of feeling peace, we feel emptiness, “and in order to keep from feeling that, we are unwilling to slow down.”
Work can become “a distraction to not fall into desolation,” the Jesuit pope said, referring to a central concept in Ignatian spirituality.
He encouraged priests and bishops to push through the uncomfortable feelings of desolation and persevere in prayer.
He also advised them to seek fraternity with other priests, which “means choosing deliberately to pursue holiness together with others, and not by oneself.”
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“As an African proverb says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.’ Sometimes it seems that the Church is slow, and that is true. Yet I like to think of it as the slowness of those who have chosen to walk in fraternity,” he said.
Priestly fraternity and friendship also helps priests live a life of celibacy with more serenity, Francis said.
“Celibacy is a gift that the Latin Church preserves, yet it is a gift that, to be lived as a means of sanctification, calls for healthy relationships, relationships of true esteem and true goodness that are deeply rooted in Christ,” he observed.
“Without friends and without prayer,” he said, “celibacy can become an unbearable burden and a counter-witness to the very beauty of the priesthood.”
Pope Francis also urged priests to be close to people, saying that he is “convinced that, for a renewed understanding of the identity of the priesthood, it is important nowadays to be closely involved in people’s real lives, to live alongside them, without escape routes.”
He emphasized that people were looking for “shepherds in the style of Jesus,” not “clerical functionaries” or “professionals of the sacred.”