“I am sure of this. It is not only Lent; we have been living in a time of mercy for the past thirty years or more, up to today.” — Pope Francis, Exhortation on Mercy to Roman Priests, March 6, 2014
Every year, during Lent, the current pope meets with the priests of the city of Rome, quite a large gathering. This year the meeting was held in the Paul VI Audience Hall, a very large auditorium. The Pope mentions the faithful to whom pastors must extend “great, great mercy.” This is a charming exhortation. He tells us that Jesus was always “on the road,” once he began his public life. (I am reminded of the famous Willie Nelson song, “On the Road Again.”) The Pope tells us that “Jesus’ life was on the road.” We see Christ’s concern for the crowds and their needs. The Pope insists that priests should get out of the rectory. They should know what goes on in their neighborhood. Once they do, “the horizon broadens, and we see that these towns and villages are not only Rome and Italy; they are the world and those helpless crowds are the peoples of many nations who are suffering through even more difficult situations.” No one ever accused Pope Francis of a narrow vision!
Pope Francis is sober. “We are not here to take part in a pleasant retreat…but rather to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to the whole Church of our time.” Any place, even Rome, is every place. The Spirit speaks to “the whole Church of our time, which is a time of mercy.” It is interesting that the word “justice” never appears in this exhortation of Francis to the Roman clergy. The Pope adds that we have been living in this “time of mercy” for thirty years, from the time of John Paul II.
Logically, a time of mercy or of grace would mean that era should be otherwise. We are living on borrowed time. Here, Francis recalls the canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska and the Divine Mercy Sunday that John Paul II began. At that time, John Paul II clarified a most significant doctrine. God, John Paul observed, would forgive everything that could be forgiven. Some things even God could not forgive. What are these? On those men who refused to be forgiven—who reject mercy—God cannot impose His will. He does not wish to undermine genuine free will. To do so, would undermine the whole redemptive order, the whole worth of His free relation to man. Heaven cannot be populated by human beings who refuse to be there, whose lives indicate they do not want to be there.
We have short memories, as Pope Francis tells us. Yet, “we cannot forget the great intuitions and gifts that have been left to the People of God. And Divine Mercy is one of these.” Mercy means that justice is not the last word. But we still have to be worthy of mercy, for mercy does not mock justice. We have to say, with the tax collector, “Oh Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).
The theme of mercy naturally leads the Holy Father to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to Confession. He has much advice to give to confessors. But first, the Pope tells that Roman clergy that he has received several letters and calls asking why he seems to be so critical of priests. No doubt there is much truth here. These people were saying, Francis notes, that “I bash priests.” Francis simply remarks, perhaps as a sudden awareness of how his words have been taken: “But I do not wish to bash you here.”
What does mercy “mean for a priest”? Francis recalls the image of the good shepherd. The priest is a man “of mercy and compassion close to his people.” This Pope constantly speaks about this “closeness” to people, in a very physical sense, almost as if it is itself a kind of sacrament. “I would like to emphasize strongly, closeness.” Pope Bergoglio continues with some advice about hearing confessions. He is especially hard on confessors who are “rigorists,” though he does not like the “laxists” either. All should follow sound moral teaching; the priest is in the place of the Father of mercy.
The Pope then recalls the story of a good priest in Buenos Aries, a man about seventy years old. He heard many confessions. But he has a “scruple” that he was too easy on penitents. So he explained to the Pope, who was a bishop at the time, that he used to go into chapel and sit there. He then complained to the Lord that it was His fault that he was as merciful as that was what he saw the Lord doing. He would then leave the chapel in peace. “The priest is called to learn this, to have a heart that is moved.”
But priests who are “aseptic”—those who are laboratory clean—“do not help the Church.” The Pope then brings up his well-known image of the Church as a “field hospital.” The world is full of moral casualties. The spiritually wounded are scattered all over the place. There is no time to deal with those who, as the Pope amusingly says, have problems with “cholesterol” or someone’s “glycemic index.” These things can come later. This comment again seems to sum up this Pope’s whole ministry. We are left somewhat on our own to list the things that he considers to be of greater or lesser importance. “First we have to treat the open wounded. I think that this is what is most important at this time.” It would help if the Pope would be more clear on what he considers the most important issue that allows to leave the ones most of think important aside for now.
The Pope adds that besides “open wounds,” we have “hidden wounds.” “There are people who distance themselves through shame.” They do not want their wounds to be seen, so they hide themselves. They are “bitter against the Church, but deep down there is a wound. They want a caress!” The Pope then asks the Roman clergy whether they know “the wounds of your parishioners?” To be close to them is “the only question.” This reflection leads the Pope back to the rigorist and laxist priests. “It is normal that there be differences in the style of confessors, but these differences cannot regard the essential, that is, sound moral doctrine and mercy.” Francis doubts if either the rigorist or the laxist confessor ever really knows the problem of the penitent. “True mercy takes the person into one’s care, listens to him attentively, approaches the situation with respect and truth, and accompanies him on the journey of reconciliation.” This journey has to include “pastoral suffering, which is a form of mercy.” It is not an easy journey to suffer with someone.
Pope Francis then has some advice, some questions that have helped him when a priest comes to him for advice. He wants to know if the priest “weeps” for his penitents. He recalls the old prayer for a “gift of tears.” He knows that this sounds somewhat odd in an age in which we are isolated individuals and not expected to bother with the problems of others. “Do you weep for your people?” The Pope wants also to know how the priest concludes his day. He advises them not to be “afraid of the flesh” of your brother—the Pope is here thinking of the Good Samaritan, who took care of the beaten man. “At the end of time, only those who have not been ashamed of the flesh of their brother who is injured and excluded will be permitted to contemplate the glorified flesh of Christ.”
Francis tells us that it does him good sometimes to look over those final admonitions found in Matthew’s Gospel about how we will be judged. The final recollection, to make this point, is of a very elderly and wise old priest. This priest had been asked even to hear the confession of John Paul II while that pope was in Buenos Aires. Just before the Easter Vigil one year, when Francis was the vicar, he checked the fax machine one morning to see that this old priest had just died. He was about 94. Francis had intended to have lunch with him on Easter. But instead he went down to the crypt where the priest’s body already was present. He noticed that, even though the man had confessed half of the city, only two elderly ladies were there and no flowers. Francis went out and bought some flowers to arrange around the coffin. He then noticed that the priest had a rosary in his hand. So he indulged in a little holy filching—“the thief that we all have inside of us, don’t we?” He detached the crucifix from the rosary and has kept it with him ever since, even though, as he notes, there are no pockets in papal vestments. This priest was an example to Francis of the good that a merciful priest does.
Pope Francis’ final remarks turn to the Hall full of Roman priests before him. “Italian priests are good. They are good. I believe that if Italy is still so strong, it is not because of us who are Bishops, rather it is because of the parish priests, the priests! It is true; this is true! It is not a little incense to comfort you. I truly believe it to be so.” Francis then thanks them for listening. One cannot but be moved by such an exhortation to the priests of Rome by the Bishop of Rome. We do live in “a time of mercy.” How seldom do we notice.