Following up on yesterday’s post about saturnos and rigidity, especially after reviewing the comments, I’d like to address a narrative that’s been advanced through much of his papacy: that he likes to “insult” priests, especially those who embrace orthodoxy, tradition, and Latin liturgy.
One critic of Francis has received widespread publicity for publishing “The Pope Francis Little Book of Insults.” The well-known American priest, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote an open letter to Pope Francis on Facebook that was subsequently shared and publicized by numerous media outlets. In his letter, Msgr. Pope wrote, “Santo Padre, I’m not feeling the love here, I don’t feel accompanied by you.” He concluded by saying:
In all this I am still your son and share the priesthood of Jesus with you. I await the solicitude and gentle care from you that you say I, and others like me, lack. Meanwhile I must honestly and painfully say that I am wearied from being scorned and demonized by you.
I believe Msgr. Pope’s pain is genuine. I think he’s a good priest and he’s truly trying to be the best pastor and spiritual father he can. He’s known as a traditionalist from his writings, and he clearly has an affinity for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, but he’s also the pastor of an urban, African American parish in Washington, DC, and he faithfully and enthusiastically celebrates Mass according to the cultural and musical traditions of the community. I honestly don’t think Pope Francis’s words about rigid and uncaring priests apply to Msgr. Pope at all.
It’s clear that this narrative–that Pope Francis is insulting to faithful priests and only likes heterodox clergy–has become entrenched in the minds of some people. And for those who are absolutely convinced that this is the case, arguing–yet again–that Francis has been taken out of context and trying to explain these statements properly is fruitless.
Instead, I will try to highlight some of the words and actions that Francis has used to affirm and encourage priests. Let’s not forget that in August, Francis wrote a Letter to Priests in honor of the 160th anniversary of the death of the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney.
In his opening remarks, Pope Francis writes (emphasis mine):
“Like the Curé of Ars, you serve ‘in the trenches,’ bearing the burden of the day and the heat (cf. Mt 20:12), confronting an endless variety of situations in your effort to care for and accompany God’s people. I want to say a word to each of you who, often without fanfare and at personal cost, amid weariness, infirmity and sorrow, carry out your mission of service to God and to your people. Despite the hardships of the journey, you are writing the finest pages of the priestly life.
Some time ago, I shared with the Italian bishops my worry that, in more than a few places, our priests feel themselves attacked and blamed for crimes they did not commit. I mentioned that priests need to find in their bishop an older brother and a father who reassures them in these difficult times, encouraging and supporting them along the way.
As an older brother and a father, I too would like in this letter to thank you in the name of the holy and faithful People of God for all that you do for them, and to encourage you never to forget the words that the Lord spoke with great love to us on the day of our ordination. Those words are the source of our joy: ‘I no longer call you servants… I call you friends’ (Jn 15:15).”
In the letter he speaks on four themes related to the priesthood: Pain, Gratitude, Encouragement, and Praise.
On Pain, he writes,
“Countless priests make of their lives a work of mercy in areas or situations that are often hostile, isolated or ignored, even at the risk of their lives. I acknowledge and appreciate your courageous and steadfast example; in these times of turbulence, shame and pain, you demonstrate that you have joyfully put your lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel.”
“Thank you for the joy with which you have offered your lives, revealing a heart that over the years has refused to become closed and bitter, but has grown daily in love for God and his people. A heart that, like good wine, has not turned sour but become richer with age. ‘For his mercy endures forever.’”
Words of Encouragement:
“Dear brothers, Jesus, more than anyone, is aware of our efforts and our accomplishments, our failures and our mistakes. He is the first to tell us: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Mt 11:28-29).
In this prayer, we know that we are never alone. The prayer of a pastor embraces both the Spirit who cries out ‘Abba, Father!’ (cf. Gal 4:6), and the people who have been entrusted to his care. Our mission and identity can be defined by this dialectic.”
Giving praise to our Blessed Mother:
“To contemplate Mary is ‘to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her, we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves.’
Perhaps at times our gaze can begin to harden, or we can feel that the seductive power of apathy or self-pity is about to take root in our heart. Or our sense of being a living and integral part of God’s People begins to weary us, and we feel tempted to a certain elitism. At those times, let us not be afraid to turn to Mary and to take up her song of praise.”
Let us also not neglect what he said about priests in his 2018 Chrism Mass Homily:
“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.”
Or in his Chrism Mass homily this year:
“We priests are the poor man and we would like to have the heart of the poor widow whenever we give alms, touching the hand of the beggar and looking him or her in the eye. We priests are Bartimaeus, and each morning we get up and pray: ‘Lord, that I may see.’ We priests are, in some point of our sinfulness, the man beaten by the robbers. And we want first to be in the compassionate hands of the good Samaritan, in order then to be able to show compassion to others with our own hands.
I confess to you that whenever I confirm and ordain, I like to smear with chrism the foreheads and the hands of those I anoint. In that generous anointing, we can sense that our own anointing is being renewed. I would say this: We are not distributors of bottled oil. We have been anointed to anoint. We anoint by distributing ourselves, distributing our vocation and our heart. When we anoint others, we ourselves are anointed anew by the faith and the affection of our people. We anoint by dirtying our hands in touching the wounds, the sins and the worries of the people. We anoint by perfuming our hands in touching their faith, their hopes, their fidelity and the unconditional generosity of their self-giving, which many significant figures describe as superstition.”
Are these the words of a man who holds priests in contempt? Does Francis fail to empathize with the struggles and burdens that Catholic priests carry each and every day? Yes, he has words of advice and even sharp criticism at times. But he clearly is a man who professes a great love of the priesthood and gratitude for the priests who pick up their crosses and serve Christ’s Church every day.
That said, words are one thing; actions are what truly demonstrate someone’s values and priorities. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how Pope Francis treated his priests when he was an archbishop. In an interview with John Allen of Crux, Fr. Pedro Brunori, an Opus Dei priest serving in Buenos Aires, related this:
“More than once, someone would call him up and say, ‘I’m sick, I need a priest to say Mass for me.’ He’d tell them not to worry, I’ll take care of it, and he’d go to say the Mass himself. Sometimes he’d bring another priest, while he heard confessions. For him, confession is about the mercy of God. There are a lot of parishes in Buenos Aires, and they sometimes don’t have enough priests to hear confessions. Quite often, he would go and do it himself, while a priest celebrated the Mass. He would also go to hear confessions in the slums.”
I would like to also provide an excerpt from an article from the National Catholic Register, written by Alejandro Bermudez in May 2013, which describes the relationship and dynamic between then-Cardinal Bergoglio and his priests when he served as archbishop of Buenos Aires. I believe that this gets to the heart of what he is trying to say as pope:
“Cardinal Bergoglio’s efforts for reform in Buenos Aires were not exclusively aimed at the liturgy. He sought to change priestly and sacramental life in general.
One of the most important and successful transformations in the archdiocese, with a significant impact on liturgy, was the cardinal’s approach to the ‘villero’ priests.
In an interview for a book I recently finished about Pope Francis and his fellow Argentinian Jesuits, Jesuit Father Ignacio Perez del Viso, who taught Jorge Bergoglio as a seminarian, explained that, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he completely changed the dynamics of the priests and the shanty towns they served.
Father Ignacio explained, ‘In the ’70s, most bishops would be in constant tension with the villero priests, and, every now and then, one of them would be suddenly transferred or removed altogether.’
‘By the ’90s, bishops would tolerate them … but Bergoglio, from the moment he became auxiliary [bishop] in Buenos Aires, changed all that,’ he said.
The difference was that Cardinal Bergoglio embraced the priests and their ministry. He would visit them in the shanty towns, send them to rest if they were tired and replace them himself at their parish for a few days. He would personally take care of them if they were in bed sick — essentially, he looked after their particular needs.
The only time he removed a villero priest from a shanty town was to protect him from a local drug lord who sent death threats.
And with the same fatherly solicitude that he used to care for his priests, the archbishop requested that they return to wearing clerics; refrain from using “batata” (an Argentinean sweet potato) instead of unleavened bread to celebrate Mass; and use songs from Catholic songbooks rather than political or secular songs.
Most often, he used persuasion with his pastors to transform the liturgical abuses in Buenos Aires, but also, in the words of a fellow Jesuit, ‘he never flinched when tough measures were required.’
With the process of secularization and stiffer selection criteria applied to priestly vocations, the number of seminarians dropped during Cardinal Bergoglio’s years as archbishop. But friends and foes agree that the quality of the celebration and preaching dramatically improved in the archdiocese.”
In light of all this–and this just begins to scrape the surface–is it really fair to say that Francis holds priests in contempt or “demonizes” them? If we take a step back, are his statements about rigid priests really “insults” that he directs at specific priests, or are they tendencies that priests (and all of us, for that matter) should avoid?
If you are a priest who believes that Pope Francis looks upon you and your priesthood with scorn, I ask that you take a step back and try to understand what the Holy Father is really saying. Perhaps he has something important to say to you.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.