For the first time since 2019, Pope Francis’s schedule on Holy Thursday looked much like it did before the pandemic. He began the day with a Chrism Mass celebrated with some 1,800 Roman priests and many other bishops, cardinals, and lay faithful filling St. Peter’s Basilica. His day ended with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated with prisoners in an Italian prison in Civitavecchia.
Chrism Mass: “A worldly priest is nothing more than a clericalized pagan.”
As in years past, Francis’s homily focused on a reflection for the ordained priests gathered to commemorate the institution of the priesthood and renew their priestly vows. Although focused on the ordained clergy who dedicate their lives to service for the people of God, Francis’s reflections on the idolatry that can pull us away from the mission God has for us is relevant to all.
He began by inviting his brother priests to accept the Lord’s invitation to be loved and forgiven by him:
There is no recompense greater than friendship with Jesus, do not forget this. There is no peace greater than his forgiveness, and we all know that. There is no greater price than his precious Blood,and we must not allow it to be devalued by unworthy conduct.
If we think about it, dear brother priests, the Lord is inviting us to be faithful to him, to be faithful to his covenant, and to let ourselves be loved and forgiven by him. They are invitations addressed to us, so that in this way we can serve, with a clear conscience, the holy and faithful people of God. Our people deserve this and they need it.
Rooted in this faithful contemplation of the God who loves and forgives us, Francis says we are able to be honest with ourselves about the secret idols we keep:
“Fixing our eyes on Jesus” is a grace that we, as priests, need to cultivate. At the end of the day, we do well to gaze upon the Lord, and to let him gaze upon our hearts and the hearts of all those whom we have encountered. Not as an accounting of our sins, but as a loving act of contemplation, in which we review our day with the eyes of Jesus, seeing its graces and gifts, and giving thanks for all that he has done for us. But also to set before him our temptations, so as to acknowledge them and reject them. As we can see, this requires knowing what is pleasing to the Lord and what it is that he is asking of us here and now, at this point in our lives.
And perhaps, if we meet his gracious gaze, he will also help us to show him our idols. The idols that, like Rachel, we have hidden under the folds of our cloak (cf. Gen 31: 34-35). Allowing the Lord to see those hidden idols – we all have them; all of us! – and to strengthens us against them and takes away their power.
Francis emphasizes how Satan deceives us, even “politely,” asking us to welcome him in by accepting substitutes, half-truths, and lies. Only the presence of Jesus and his gaze can help us see that we have really glorified ourselves and accepted “poison”:
Even though we might tell ourselves that we know perfectly well the difference between God and an idol, in practice we take space away from the Trinity in order to give it to the devil, in a kind of oblique worship. The worship of one who quietly yet constantly listens to his talk and consumes his products, so that in the end not even a little corner remains for God. He is like that, he works quietly and slowly. In another context I spoke about “educated” demons, those that Jesus said are worse than the one who was cast out. They are “polite”, they ring the bell, they enter and gradually take over the house. We must be careful, these are our idols.
There is something about idols that is personal. When we fail to unmask them, when we do not let Jesus show us that in them we are wrongly and unnecessarily seeking ourselves, we make room for the Evil One. We need to remember that the devil demands that we do his will and that we serve him, but he does not always ask us to serve him and worship him constantly; but beware, he is a great diplomat. Receiving our worship from time to time is enough for him to prove that he is our real master and that he can feel like a god in our life and in our heart.
Francis went on to talk about three forms of hidden idolatry thatparticularly tempt priests, weakening them in their vocation as shepherds of the Lord’s flock. They are spiritual worldliness, pragmatism, and functionalism. He says that each idol corresponds to replacing a member of the Trinity: worldliness replaces the Son’s presence, pragmatism the Spirit’s, and functionalism the Father’s.
Spiritual worldliness involves “a triumphalism without the cross,” and seeking one’s own glory. Francis had harsh but clear words about what happens to those who fall for this form of idolatry:
The worldly attitude of seeking our own glory robs us of the presence of Jesus, humble and humiliated, the Lord who draws near to everyone, the Christ who suffers with all who suffer, who is worshiped by our people, who know who his true friends are. A worldly priest is nothing more than a clericalized pagan.
Pragmatism, for Francis, focuses on a love of numbers and statistics as a guiding principle in their discernment, which is really idolatrous. “In this fascination with and love of numbers, we are really seeking ourselves, pleased with the control offered us by this way of thinking, unconcerned with individual faces and far from love,” he said. This use and love of statistics in ministry leaves evangelism and the Church’s mission “without a real incarnation,” reducing persons to faceless figures. Instead, priests need to learn how to step back in order to leave room for God, the Holy Spirit, to work.
Finally, Francis turned to the hidden idolatry of functionalism. This appears to be of particular emphasis, as each priest gathered for the Mass was given a copy of a recent book written by Bishop François-Xavier Bustillo of Ajaccio, France, titled “Witnesses, Not Officials” (“Testimoni, non Funzionari” in Italian) on this topic. According to Vatican News, the book calls attention in particular “to the risk of transforming the parish into just an administrative office.”
Recognizing that administrative plans which turn shepherds into senior managers can seem to be less dangerous than they really are, Francis points out that this functionary role really undermines the necessary spiritual fatherhood of the pastor. These reflections seem particularly relevant given the current synodal process, which many have worried could turn the Church’s fathers into little more than bureaucrats drawing up innovative strategic plans:
This can be alluring; many people “are more enthusiastic about the roadmap than about the road”. The functionalist mindset has short shrift for mystery; it aims at efficiency. Little by little, this idol replaces the Father’s presence within us…“Functionaries” take no delight in the graces that the Spirit pours out on his people, from which they too can “be nourished” like the worker who earns his wage. The priest with a functionalist mindset has his own nourishment, which is his ego. In functionalism, we set aside the worship of the Father in the small and great matters of our life and take pleasure in the efficiency of our own programmes. As David did when, tempted by Satan, he insisted on carrying out the census (cf. 1 Chron 21:1). These are the lovers of the route plan and the itinerary, and not of the journey itself.
There is real spiritual danger here, that of prioritizing “empirical results” in a way that serves the ego and vainglory of the shepherd who can then take credit for the “success” of his own programs and pastoral plans. This attitude “weakens the union of his people with God and forges a new idol based on numbers and programmes,” and ultimately undermines the priest’s own fidelity to his covenant and relationship with God. Instead, it is only in and through that relationship with Jesus that priests and all of us can be freed of the temptation to idolatry. In this closing reflection, Francis speaks to all of us who must unmask our own idols, returning to the constant theme of his pontificate: God’s tender love and mercy for us who fall:
Jesus is the only “way” to avoid being mistaken in knowing what we feel and where our heart is leading us. He is the only way that leads to proper discernment, as we measure ourselves against him each day. It is as if, even now, he is seated in our parish church and tells us that today all we have heard is now fulfilled. Jesus Christ, as a sign of contradiction – which is not always something harsh and painful, for mercy and, even more, tender love, are themselves signs of contradiction – Jesus Christ, I repeat, forces these idols to show themselves, so that we can see their presence, their roots and the ways they operate, and allow the Lord to destroy them. This is the proposal: allow the Lord to destroy those hidden idols. We should keep these things in mind and be attentive, lest the weeds of these idols that we were able to hide in the folds of our hearts may spring up anew.
Francis celebrates Mass in the chapel of the Civitavecchia prison. Courtesy Vatican News.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper: “God forgives everything and God always forgives!”
As was his custom prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass in a Rome-area prison and washed the feet of twelve men and women there. During his homily, he emphasized Jesus’ friendship with us and his forgiveness, repeating what is now a catchphrase of Francis’s: “He never tires of forgiving: it is we who tire of asking for forgiveness.”
Although visibly struggling with knee pain, Pope Francis bent to wash and kiss the feet of those gathered. Speaking of the liturgical gesture, Francis said:
I do this from the heart because we priests should be the first to serve others, not exploit others. Clericalism sometimes leads us down this path. But we must serve. This is a sign, also a sign of love for these brothers and sisters and for all of you here; a sign that means: “I do not judge anyone. I try to serve everyone.” There is One who judges, but he is a somewhat strange Judge, the Lord: he judges and forgives.
Pope Francis has a full schedule for the remainder of Holy Week, including multiple public liturgies and the Via Crucis at the Colosseum on Good Friday evening. For an overview of those events, be sure to catch the “Inside the Vatican” podcast over at America. Other events will be live-streamed on the Vatican News YouTube channel.
Image Credit: Screenshot from Holy Thursday Chrism Mass, Vatican News.
Rachel Amiri serves as Production Editor for Where Peter Is and has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.