Pope Francis met with the priests of Rome, emphasizing the importance of mercy in pastoral ministry and explaining that to be a priest means being close to one's flock.

"The tears of a priest…Do you cry, or is this a clergy that has lost its tears? Do you cry for your people? Do you battle with the Lord for your people, like Abraham fought?" the pontiff asked the clergy present in the March 6 morning audience.

Held in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, Pope Francis centered his address to the priests on mercy, calling to mind the scene from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus weeps for those he encounters when traveling through towns and villages, because they resemble a people "tired and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd."

"We are not here to perform a spiritual exercise for the beginning of Lent, but rather to listen to the voice of the Spirit that speaks to everyone in the Church in this, our time, which is indeed the time of mercy," he said.

Reflecting on this "time of mercy," the Pope drew attention to how easily we forget things today, "including the teaching of the Church!"

"This is in part inevitable," the Pope observed, "but we must not forget the important content, the great intuitions and that which has been consigned to the People of God. And divine mercy is among these."

"It is up to us, as ministers of the Church, to keep this message alive, above all in preaching and in our gestures, in signs and in pastoral choices, such as the decision to restore priority to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and at the same time to works of mercy."

Asking the clergy what it means to be a priest, the pontiff explained that, as Jesus, "priests are moved by their sheep," and that like the Good Shepherd, a priest is a man of compassion and mercy, who is close to his flock and is a servant of all.

Calling to mind the special "depth" of mercy shown through the administration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Pope noted that a priest shows compassion "in all his attitude, in his way of welcoming, listening, advising and absolving."

"But this derives from how he lives this Sacrament himself…If a person lives this himself, in his own heart, he is also able to give it to others in his ministry."

Emphasizing the importance of having a heart that is moved, Pope Francis affirmed that "sterile priests do not help the Church," and referred to the Church as a "field hospital" where injuries are treated.

Drawing attention to the many "who are wounded by material problems, by scandals, even in the Church" and by "the illusions of the world," the pontiff explained that "We priests must be there, close to these people."

"Mercy means, above all, taking care of wounds. When a person is injured, this is the immediate help they need, not analysis; the special care can follow, but first we need to tend to the open wounds."

"Do you know what your parishioners' wounds are? Are you close to them?" he asked, highlighting that in Confession, they must not be too "lax," or too "rigorous."

"Often, as priests, we hear of the experience of the faithful who say they have encountered in Confession a very 'rigid' or a very 'flexible' priest, lax or rigorous," the Pope observed, adding that although different styles are normal, they "must not relate to the substance, that is the healthy moral doctrine and mercy."

Reflecting on how mercy "accompanies" persons to holiness and fosters "growth," the pontiff expressed the importance of "pastoral suffering" which is  a "suffering with the people, like a father and a mother suffer for their children, and I would say also with anxiety."

Asking the clergy how many of them "cry when faced with the suffering of a child, the destruction of a family, before the many people who cannot find their path," the Pope encouraged them to fight for their people as "Abraham fought."

Concluding his address, Pope Francis stressed that "we will be judged for how we have been able to be close to 'every flesh,' to our neighbors, to the flesh of our brothers."

"At the end of time, only those who have not been ashamed before the flesh of his injured and excluded brother will be admitted to the contemplation of Christ's glorified flesh."