Pope Francis misses Penitential service due to Slight Illness but sends Priests message "..to live a life of substantial prayer." Full Text

Vatican News reports that a traditional penitential liturgy was held for clergy of the Diocese of Rome on Thursday. The ceremony took place in the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, the cathedral of the Diocese. After a meditation by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, the priests of the diocese had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation during a penitential liturgy at St John Lateran.

Normally, Pope Francis, as the Bishop of Rome, is present for the event, and personally hears the confessions of several priests. This year, however, due to a “slight indisposition”, the Pope “preferred to remain in the vicinity of Santa Marta”, according to a statement from the Director of the Holy See Press Office. The Holy Father’s prepared remarks were read out to the Roman clergy by Cardinal De Donatis.

Vatican.va Release of the Full Text: Address of the Holy Father for today's penitential liturgy read by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, 27.02.2020

Speech of the Holy Father

The bitterness in the life of the priest.

A reflection ad intra

I don't want to reflect so much on the tribulations that derive from the mission of the presbyter: they are things that are well known and already widely diagnosed. I wish to speak with you, on this occasion, about a subtle enemy who finds many ways to disguise and hide and like a parasite slowly steals the joy of the vocation to which we were called one day. I want to talk to you about that bitterness focused on the relationship with the faith, the Bishop, the confreres. We know that other roots and situations may exist. But these summarize many encounters that I have had with some of you.

I immediately note two things: the first, that these lines are the result of listening to some seminarians and priests from different Italian dioceses and cannot or should not refer to any specific situation. The second: that most of the priests I know are happy with their lives and consider these bitterness as part of normal living, without drama. I preferred to redundate what I listen to rather than express my opinion on the topic.

Looking our bitterness in the face and confronting them allows us to make contact with our humanity, with our blessed humanity. And so remember that as priests we are not called to be omnipotent but sinful men forgiven and sent. As Saint Irenaeus of Lyon said: "what is not assumed is not redeemed". Let these "bitternesses" also show us the way towards greater adoration of the Father and help us to experience again the strength of his merciful anointing (cf. Lk 15: 11-32). To put it in the psalmist: "You have changed my lament into dance, you have taken off my sackcloth, you have clothed me with joy, so that my heart will sing you, without keeping silent" (Ps 30: 12-13).

First cause of bitterness: problems with faith.

"We thought it was him," the disciples of Emmaus confide to one another (cf. Lk 24:21). A disappointed hope is at the root of their bitterness. But we must reflect: is it the Lord who has disappointed us or have we exchanged hope with our expectations? Christian hope does not really disappoint and does not fail. Hope is not to be convinced that things will get better, but that everything that happens makes sense in the light of Easter. But to hope in a Christian way it is necessary - as Saint Augustine taught in Proba - to live a life of substantial prayer. It is there that you learn to distinguish between expectations and hopes.

Now, the relationship with God - more than pastoral disappointments - can be a profound cause of bitterness. Sometimes it almost seems that He does not respect the expectations of a full and abundant life that we had on the day of ordination. Sometimes an unfinished adolescence does not help to pass from dreams to spes. Perhaps as priests we are too "respectable" in our relationship with God and we do not dare to protest in prayer, as the psalmist does very often - not only for ourselves, also for our people; because the shepherd also brings the bitterness of his people -; but also the psalms have been "censored" and we hardly make our own a spirituality of protest. So we fall into cynicism: discontented and a little frustrated. The real protest - of the adult - is not against God but before Him, because it arises precisely from confidence in Him: the person praying reminds the Father who he is and what is worthy of his name. We have to sanctify his name, but sometimes the disciples have to wake up the Lord and say to him: "Don't you care that we are lost?" (Mk 4,35-41). So the Lord wants to involve us directly in his kingdom. Not as spectators, but actively participating.
What is the difference between expectation and hope? The expectation arises when we spend our lives saving our lives: we struggle to find safety, rewards, progress ... When we receive what we want, we almost feel that we will never die, that it will always be like this! Because we are the reference point. Hope is instead something that is born in the heart when you decide not to defend yourself anymore. When I recognize my limitations, and that not everything starts and ends with me, then I recognize the importance of trusting. Already the Theatine Lorenzo Scupoli in his spiritual Combat taught it: the key to everything is in a dual and simultaneous movement: to be wary of yourself, to trust in God. I hope not when there is nothing more to do, but when I stop giving myself by do just for me. Hope rests on an alliance: God spoke to me and promised me on the day of ordination that mine will be a full life, with the fullness and flavor of the Beatitudes; certainly troubled - like that of all men - but beautiful. My life is tasty if I do Easter, not if things go as I say.

And here we understand another thing: listening to history is not enough to understand these processes. We must listen to history and our life in the light of the Word of God. The disciples of Emmaus overcame the disappointment when the Risen One opened their minds to the intelligence of the Scriptures. Here: things will get better not only because we will change superiors, or mission, or strategies, but because we will be comforted by the Word. Jeremiah prophet confessed: "Your Word was the joy and gladness of my heart" (15:16).

Bitterness - which is not a fault - must be accepted. It can be a great opportunity. Perhaps it is also healthy, because it makes the inner alarm bell ring: be careful, you have exchanged security with the alliance, you are becoming "foolish and late-hearted". There is a sadness that can lead us to God. Let us welcome it, we do not get angry with ourselves. It may be the right time. Saint Francis of Assisi also experienced it, he reminds us of it in his Testament (cf. Franciscan sources, 110). The bitterness will change into a great sweetness, and the easy, worldly sweetnesses will turn into bitterness.

Second cause of bitterness: problems with the Bishop

I don't want to fall into rhetoric or look for the scapegoat, or even defend myself or defend those in my area. The commonplace that finds the blame for everything in superiors no longer holds. We are all missing in the small and the large. Nowadays it seems to breathe a general atmosphere (not only among us) of a widespread mediocrity, which does not allow us to climb on easy judgments. But the fact remains that much bitterness in the life of the priest is given by the omissions of the Pastors.

We all experience our limitations and shortcomings. We face situations in which we realize that we are not adequately prepared ... But going up to the services and ministries with greater visibility, the shortcomings become more evident and noisy; and it is also a logical consequence that there is a lot of play in this relationship, for better or for worse. What omissions? We do not allude here to the often inevitable divergences about managerial problems or pastoral styles. This is tolerable and part of life on this earth. As long as Christ is not all in all, all will try to impose themselves on all! It is the fallen Adam who is in us to make these jokes.

The real problem that is bitter are not the differences (and perhaps not even the mistakes: even a bishop has the right to make mistakes like all creatures!), But rather two very serious and destabilizing reasons for priests.

First of all a certain soft authoritarian drift: we do not accept those of us who think differently. For a word you are transferred to the category of those who row against, for a "distinction" you are registered among the discontented. The parrhesia is buried in the frenzy of imposing plans. The cult of initiatives is replacing the essential: one faith, one baptism, one God the Father of all. Adherence to initiatives risks becoming the yardstick of communion. But it does not always coincide with the unanimity of opinions. Nor can one expect that communion is exclusively one-way: priests must be in communion with the bishop ... and bishops in communion with priests: it is not a question of democracy, but of fatherhood.
St. Benedict in the Rule - we are in the famous chapter III - recommends that the abbot, when facing an important question, consult the entire community, including the youngest. Then he continues by reiterating that the final decision is up to the abbot alone, that everything must be disposed of with prudence and equity. For Benedetto there is no question of authority, quite the opposite, it is the abbot who answers before God for the running of the monastery; however it is said that in deciding he must be "prudent and fair". We know the first word well: prudence and discernment are part of the common vocabulary.

"Equity" is less usual: equity means taking everyone's opinion into account and safeguarding the representativeness of the flock, without making preferences. The great temptation of the shepherd is to surround himself with "his", "neighbors"; and so, unfortunately, real competence is supplanted by a certain presumed loyalty, no longer distinguishing between those who please and those who advise selflessly. This makes the flock suffer a lot, which often accepts without outsourcing anything. The Code of Canon Law recalls that the faithful "have the right, and sometimes even the duty, to express their thoughts to the sacred Pastors on what concerns the good of the Church" (can. 212 § 3). Of course, in this time of precariousness and widespread fragility, the solution seems to be authoritarianism (in the political sphere this is evident). But the real cure - as San Benedetto advises - lies in fairness, not in uniformity. [1]

Third cause of bitterness: problems between us

The priest in recent years has suffered the blows of scandals, financial and sexual. Suspicion has drastically made relationships colder and more formal; one no longer enjoys the gifts of others, on the contrary, it seems that it is a mission to destroy, minimize, make people suspect. In the face of scandals, the evil one tempts us by pushing us towards a "Donatist" vision of the Church: inside the impeccable, out who is wrong! We have false conceptions of the militant Church, in a sort of ecclesiological puritanism. The Bride of Christ is and remains the field in which wheat and tares grow up to parousia. Whoever has not made this evangelical vision of reality his own exposes himself to unspeakable and useless bitterness.

However, the public and publicized sins of the clergy have made everyone more cautious and less willing to forge meaningful bonds, especially in order to share the faith. Common appointments multiply - ongoing formation and others - but you participate with a less willing heart. There is more "community", but less communion! The question we ask ourselves when we meet a new confrere emerges silently: “Who do I really have before me? I can trust?".

It is not about loneliness: it is not a problem but an aspect of the mystery of communion. Christian solitude - that of those who enter their room and pray to the Father in secret - is a blessing, the true source of the loving welcome of the other. The real problem lies in not finding time to be alone anymore. Without loneliness there is no free love, and others become a substitute for the voids. In this sense as priests we must always re-learn to be alone "evangelically", like Jesus at night with the Father. [2]

Here the drama is isolation, which is something other than loneliness. An isolation not only and not so much external - we are always in the midst of people - as inherent in the soul of the priest. I start from the deepest isolation and then touch its most visible form.

Isolated from grace: lapped by secularism we no longer believe or feel we are surrounded by heavenly friends - the "large number of witnesses" (cf Heb 12: 1) -; we seem to experience that our story, the afflictions, do not affect anyone. The world of grace has gradually become foreign to us, the saints seem to us only the "imaginary friends" of children. The Spirit that inhabits the heart - substantially and not in the figure - is something that perhaps we have never experienced through dissipation or negligence. We know, but we don't "touch". The distance from the force of grace produces rationalisms or sentimentalisms. Never a redeemed flesh
Isolated from grace: lapped by secularism we no longer believe or feel we are surrounded by heavenly friends - the "large number of witnesses" (cf Heb 12: 1) -; we seem to experience that our story, the afflictions, do not affect anyone. The world of grace has gradually become foreign to us, the saints seem to us only the "imaginary friends" of children. The Spirit that inhabits the heart - substantially and not in the figure - is something that perhaps we have never experienced through dissipation or negligence. We know, but we don't "touch". The distance from the force of grace produces rationalisms or sentimentalisms. Never a redeemed meat.

To isolate oneself from history: everything seems to be consumed in the here and now, without hope in the promised goods and in the future reward. Everything opens and closes with us. My death is not the passing of the witness, but an unjust interruption. The more special, powerful, rich in gifts you feel, the more you close your heart to the continuous meaning of the history of the people of God to whom you belong. Our individualized consciousness makes us believe that there has been nothing before and nothing after. This is why we struggle so much to take care of and keep what our predecessor has started out well: we often arrive in the parish and we feel compelled to make a clean slate, in order to distinguish ourselves and mark the difference. We are unable to continue to live the good that we did not give birth to! We start from scratch because we do not feel the taste of belonging to a community path of salvation.

Isolated from others: isolation from grace and history is one of the causes of the inability among us to establish significant relationships of trust and evangelical sharing. If I am isolated, my problems seem unique and insurmountable: nobody can understand me. This is one of the father's favorite thoughts of the lie. We remember the words of Bernanos: «Only after a long time do you recognize it, and the sadness that announces it, precedes it, how sweet it is! It is the most substantial of the elixirs of the devil, his ambrosia! ". [3] Thought that gradually takes shape and closes us in ourselves, distances us from others and puts us in a position of superiority. Because nobody would live up to the needs. Thought that by dint of repeating it ends up nesting in us. "Whoever hides his sins will not succeed, whoever confesses and abandons them will find mercy" (Pr 28,13).

The devil does not want you to speak, that you tell, that you share. So you are looking for a good spiritual father, a "smart" elderly man who can accompany you. Never isolate yourself, never! The deep feeling of communion occurs only when, personally, I become aware of the "we" that I am, I have been and will be. Otherwise, the other problems come cascading: from isolation, from a community without communion, competition arises and certainly not cooperation; the desire for recognition emerges and not the joy of shared holiness; one enters into a relationship or to compare oneself or to support one another.

We remember the people of Israel when, walking in the desert for three days, they arrived in Mara, but could not drink the water because it was bitter. Faced with the protest of the people, Moses invoked the Lord and the water became sweet (cf. Ex 15.22-25). The holy faithful people of God know us better than anyone else. They are very respectful and know how to accompany and take care of their shepherds. They know our bitterness and also pray to the Lord for us. Let's add ours to their prayers, and ask the Lord to turn our bitterness into fresh water for his people. We ask the Lord to give us the ability to recognize what is embittering us and thus let us transform and be reconciled people who reconcile, pacified who pacify, full of hope that instill hope. The people of God await from us teachers of spirit capable of indicating the wells of fresh water in the middle of the desert.
[1] A second reason for bitterness comes from a "loss" in the ministry of pastors: suffocated by management problems and personnel emergencies, we risk neglecting the munus docendi. The bishop is the teacher of faith, of orthodoxy and "orthopathy", of right belief and right feeling in the Holy Spirit. In episcopal ordination, the epiclesis is prayed with the Gospel Book open on the candidate's head and the imposition of the miter externally reaffirms the munus of transmitting not personal beliefs but evangelical wisdom. Who is the catechist of that permanent disciple who is the priest? The bishop of course! But who remembers it? It could be argued that priests do not usually want to be educated by bishops. And it's true. But this - even if it were - is not a good reason to give up the munus. The holy people of God have the right to have priests who teach to believe; and deacons and priests have the right to have a bishop who in turn teaches to believe and hope in the One Master, Way, Truth and Life, who inflames their faith. As a priest I don't want the bishop to please me, but to help me believe. I wish I could found my theological hope in him! Sometimes we are reduced to following only the confreres in crisis (and it is a good thing), but even the "healthy donkeys" would need a more targeted, serene and out of emergency listening. So here is a second omission that can cause bitterness: the renunciation of the munus docendi towards priests (and not only). Authoritarian pastors who have lost the authority to teach?

[2] It is a loneliness in the middle - let's face it - because it is the loneliness of the shepherd who is full of names, faces, situations, of the shepherd who arrives in the evening tired of talking with his Lord about all these people. The shepherd's solitude is a solitude inhabited by laughter and tears of people and the community; it is a solitude with faces to offer to the Lord.

[3] Diary of a country curate, Milan 2017, 103.

[00287-IT.01] [Original text: Italian].