Since the first Holy Thursday of his papacy, when he moved the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to a youth prison on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis has used this day to paint a portrait of his vision for the Church: a Church that goes out to the margins and encounters, evangelizes, and serves others. Much has been made over the controversy from Francis’ decision to wash the feet of women and non-Catholics (and even non-Christians) during the evening Mass. Some critics even claimed that Francis was in violation of Church law, with some bishops refusing to follow the example of the pope and prohibiting the washing of women’s feet in their dioceses.

Obviously the dominant and most compelling aspect of Holy Thursday has been the visually compelling image of Francis both washing and kissing the feet of men and women from a marginalized group, whether it’s prisoners or inmates at a juvenile detention center, the disabled and elderly, or migrants and refugees. But let us not forget that every Holy Thursday, Francis has given two homilies: one at the Mass of the Lord’s supper, and another earlier in the day at the Chrism Mass for the Diocese of Rome.

Every year, during Holy Week (traditionally on Holy Thursday, if possible) the bishop of every diocese in the world gathers with all the priests of his diocese for a mass at which the sacred oils for the coming year are blessed. As the diocesan Bishop of Rome, Francis is no different. And at every Chrism Mass since his election, he has preached on his vision of the Catholic priesthood.

This morning, Pope Francis again returned to this topic. In his homily, he spoke about one of the most controversial and divisive themes of his papacy: the role of the pastor as one who accompanies his people with mercy and understanding, who does not wield the law as a weapon or instrument of division.

“[Jesus] could have been a scribe or a doctor of the law, but he wanted to be an ‘evangelizer,’ a street preacher, the ‘bearer of joyful news’ for his people, the preacher whose feet are beautiful, as Isaiah says. The Preacher is always close.

This is God’s great choice: the Lord chose to be close to his people. Thirty years of hidden life! Only then did he begin his preaching. Here we see the pedagogy of the Incarnation, a pedagogy of inculturation, not only in foreign cultures but also in our own parishes, in the new culture of young people…”

This is one of the points Pope Francis has repeated again and again: a pastor must be close to his people. Too often, we Catholics see our pastors as little more than public speakers. We judge them based upon whether we like his homilies, how he says Mass, perhaps his demeanor during the occasional post-Mass handshake. If it goes further than that, we might know him as a confessor, or how he ministered to us after the death of a loved one. Maybe we even have him over to dinner (often a formal affair that’s nerve wracking for both host and guest). Maybe we see him as a peer: a golf or drinking buddy. In the context of the pastor’s relationship with his people, this is not enough. Not even close.

“Closeness, dear brothers, is crucial for an evangelizer because it is a key attitude in the Gospel (the Lord uses it to describe his Kingdom). We can be certain that closeness is the key to mercy, for mercy would not be mercy unless, like a Good Samaritan, it finds ways to shorten distances. But I also think we need to realize even more that closeness is also the key to truth; not just the key to mercy, but the key to truth. Can distances really be shortened where truth is concerned? Yes, they can. Because truth is not only the definition of situations and things from a certain distance, by abstract and logical reasoning. It is more than that. Truth is also fidelity (émeth). It makes you name people with their real name, as the Lord names them, before categorizing them or defining “their situation”. There is a distasteful habit, is there not, of following a “culture of the adjective”: this is so, this is such and such, this is like… No! This is a child of God. Then come the virtues or defects, but [first] the faithful truth of the person and not the adjective regarded as the substance.

We must be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths. They can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern. Because the “truth-idol” imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words touch the heart. Much worse, it distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.”

Closeness is the key to mercy and truth. What does he mean by this? Francis is often accused by his critics of preaching a “false mercy,” one that that is not juxtaposed with truth or justice. But just as Pope Benedict taught “there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and pardon, and at the same time, there is no merciful action that is not perfectly just,” Francis is teaching us that Truth and Mercy work in the same way.

That God’s Justice and Truth are synonymous is a very traditional principle. Aquinas, answering the question of whether they are the same, answered strongly in the affirmative:

God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is the law of His justice, is suitably called truth. Thus we also in human affairs speak of the truth of justice.” (ST I, q. 21, a. 2)

Aquinas goes on to teach that Mercy always precedes Justice.

“Whatever is done by God in created things, is done according to proper order and proportion wherein consists the idea of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works, Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something that precedes. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will—which is the ultimate end. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy.(ST I, q.21, a.4)

This “closeness” Francis describes is nothing other than the love and mercy of God that precedes truth working through the priest to each and every person he encounters. If a priest places the enforcement of the law before developing a relationship of love and mercy with his people, he is diminishing his vocation as a father and as Christ’s representative to the Church.

Does a good father immediately lay down rules and enforce discipline upon welcoming a new child? Or does he shower that child with his love, meeting his every need and doing everything he can to provide the child with a secure and nurturing home?

Pope Francis goes on to suggest meditation on three areas of priestly closeness:

“The words, “Do everything Jesus tells you”, need to be heard – in a thousand different ways but with the same motherly tone – in the hearts of all those with whom we speak. Those words are ‘spiritual accompaniment,’ ‘confession’ and ‘preaching.’”

For the first, spiritual accompaniment, he reflects on the story of the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel. He says, “The Lord gives us a model of spiritual conversation; he knows how to bring the sin of the Samaritan woman to light without its overshadowing her prayer of adoration or casting doubt on her missionary vocation.”

Priests must encourage encourage encourage their people in their spiritual growth. This cannot be done from the pulpit, this must be done through personal encounter. A pastor must invite his parishioners to visit with him, come to know him, confess their sins to him.

But this is not just a burden he’s placing upon priests. I would like to ask my readers this question: Is your pastor your spiritual father? If not, do you want him to be? And if so, is he the type of father from whom you hide your true self? Do you ever engage in spiritual conversation with your pastors?

My own pastor once shared some advice he was once given by his spiritual director shortly before his ordination. He was told, “As a priest, you will be the father to a large, poor family. Act like it.”

We are all aware of the priest shortage and the strains put on priests who often are weighed down by administrative concerns. I don’t wish to put any additional pressure on them, other than to say, be open to your parishioners. Ask us to help lighten your load. And in return, let anything we do to lighten your load or to free your time help you to be a better father to your people.

The second area he mentions is confession. He says, “It is clear that here closeness is everything, because the truths of Jesus always approach and can be spoken face to face. Looking the other in the eye, like the Lord, who, after kneeling next to the adulteress about to be stoned, stood up and said to her, ‘Nor do I condemn you’ (Jn 8:11).”

To my fellow Catholics: Consider going to confession to your pastor as regularly as you can. Face-to-face, if you are brave enough. I understand there is great anxiety and risk in doing this (for most of my life I was a big fan of anonymous confession at a parish where I wasn’t known), but knowing the sins of his people will make him a better priest. The bigger the sin, the more beneficial this is. Not only will he be moved by your humility and your begging for forgiveness, but he will then take on some of your penitential burden. He will accompany you and be close to you in this way.

The third and final area of closeness he emphasizes is preaching. Francis’s approach to this matter emphasizes the importance of the homily in reaching those far away from the Church:

“Let us reflect on this by thinking of those who are far away, and listening to Peter’s first sermon, which is part of the Pentecost event. Peter declares that the word is ‘for all that are far off’ (Acts 2:39), and he preaches in such a way that they were ‘cut to the heart’ by the kerygma, which led them to ask: ‘What shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). A question, as we said, we must always raise and answer in a Marian and ecclesial tone. The homily is the touchstone ‘for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 135). In the homily, we can see how close we have been to God in prayer and how close we are to our people in their daily lives.”

In other words, don’t preach to the choir. Instead preach with an openness and a welcoming spirit. You want to reach the hearts of those that are hardened, and to present yourself as the father of a family they might want to consider joining. Speak about how the Holy Spirit is working through the readings, and how they can convert and change us, how they are converting and changing you. And let the people know you are there for them. 

This advice is directed at priests, but it is important for all of us because it shows us what the Church and our parishes can be. Together with our priests, we can build a Church that is welcoming, that is a home, that brings people closer to God. If you want to wax poetic about the intricacies of Thomistic theology, start a blog.

To close, I will simply post the last two paragraphs of the homily, in which Francis sums up this vision of a priesthood that is close to the people. Or, if you prefer, click here and read the whole thing.

A priest who is close to his people walks among them with the closeness and tenderness of a good shepherd; in shepherding them, he goes at times before them, at times remains in their midst and at other times walks behind them. Not only do people greatly appreciate such a priest; even more, they feel that there is something special about him: something they only feel in the presence of Jesus. That is why discerning our closeness to them is not simply one more thing to do. In it, we either make Jesus present in the life of humanity or let him remain on the level of ideas, letters on a page, incarnate at most in some good habit gradually becoming routine.

Dear brother priests, let us ask Mary, “Our Lady of Closeness” to bring us closer to one another, and, when we need to tell our people to “do everything Jesus tells them”, to speak with one tone of voice, so that in the diversity of our opinions, her maternal closeness may become present. For she is the one who, by her “yes”, has brought us close to Jesus forever.

Image: Pope Francis breathes over chrism oil, a gesture symbolizing the infusion of the Holy Spirit. (Paul Haring/CNS)

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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