IS POPE FRANCIS BEING TOO TOUGH ON PRIESTS?

Back in February, I was honored to have the opportunity to give the "Rectors Conference" at the College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception at St. Andrews Hall, Seton Hall University on Pope Francis and the Priesthood.  What follows is an edited version of that talk:

        How many people have ever heard of the word >Smarmy?=
 
While in the last decade or so people already had greater access to the Holy Father=s speeches, homilies and audiences than our brothers and sisters from just a decade earlier, Pope Francis, seemingly from the night of his election has had an even greater connection with people around the world.  Not simply by making his daily Masses semi-public and allowing Vatican Radio and L=Osservatore Romano to have staff present to give reports on what he said during his homilies, but in the way he speaks and the content of his talks. It=s become routine now, an hour or so after a daily Mass in the Domus (where the Holy Father has chosen to reside) has concluded, that anyone can click an app on their iPad, or a link from a tweet and read what the Holy Father said in their own language.  That must be a bit more challenging than one might assume when we think of how these journalists have to somehow translate this constantly surprising, spontaneous even somewhat unpredictable 77 year old pontiff.  Francis doesn=t mind speaking somewhat loosely, casually to the world - even making jokes. Back in October when he visited a cloistered convent in Assisi, he quipped, ''It makes me sad when I find sisters who aren't joyful. They might smile, but with just a smile they could be flight attendants__ That=s probably not an earth-shattering thought. Francis= predecessors might have thought or even privately said the same thing. What is novel is Francis says it so publically to a world-wide audience who can hear it and read it almost instantly.
 
That=s why Fr. Frederico Lombardi, spokesperson for the Vatican, not even two months into Francis papacy explained that they would not publish entire daily homilies from Francis since different celebrations, circumstances provide different contexts.  They wanted to honor people=s interest in the Pope=s homilies while respecting Francis= spontaneity. The compromise that was announced was that there would be reports from the Holy Father=s daily activities and that stories about his homilies would be Arich in quotes@ but not a literal, word-for-word translation of his homilies.
 
Which leads back to the ASmarmy@ question. A few months ago a headline that caught my attention read, APope Francis: the true priest and his relation to Christ.@ I was excited to have a spiritual reflection on the priesthood from the Pope who has captured the hearts of people - Catholics and non-Catholics alike - around the world in such a short period of time. As I did, there it was - the word ASmarmy.@ I confess my ignorance, I had never heard of the word before - but it sure didn=t sound good.   Reading the article, you realized quickly that it wasn=t like the reporter was using the word to describe what Francis said... The Holy Father said it himself. Three times to be exact:
 
We are anointed by the Spirit, and when a priest is far from Jesus Christ he can lose this unction...And instead of being anointed he ends up being smarmy. And how damaging to the Church are smarmy priests_ Those who put their strength in artificial things, in vanity, in an attitude... in a cutesy language... But how often do we hear it said with sorrow: >This is a butterfly-priest,= because they are always vain... [This kind of priest] does not have a relationship with Jesus Christ_ He has lost the unction: he is smarmy.@
 
By the third Smarmy I said AOK I need to look this up@ so I went to google - which as I=ve learned, you have to be careful when doing, because sometimes the results aren=t the bestY one of the first definitions I saw on the results page was: Smarmy:  A certain attitude often accompanied by a squinty look and a superior smile that makes you instantly hate a person. Similar to snobby.  I instantly thought - Yikes, Pope Francis_ Then I realized that citation came from AUrban Dictionary@ which isn=t completely wrong, but it=s not the best of sources and it=s a bit too extreme. Webster=s Online Dictionary had a nicer spin on it (but not much). They describe Smarmy as: behaving in a way that seems polite, kind, or pleasing but is not genuine or believable.
 
           A few weeks after the ASmarmy@ reference, in another daily Mass homily, while comparing modern day clerics to the priests in the Old Testament in the book of Samuel who were not the best examples of being AMen of God,@ Francis referenced priests and bishops when he asked, AHow many times, do God=s people feel themselves unloved by those who ought to give witness?@ Quotes like these, along with moves like severely limiting the number of priests eligible to receive the honorary title Monsignor has caused some to feel the Holy Father has been unfairly critical, making priests the focus of a lot of his concern.  In light of the numerous, publically enumerated lists of problems facing the Church that people talked about before his election, this seems surprising. What do parish priests know of the Vatican banking scandal?  The release of private, confidential and personal documents from Pope Benedict (aka AVati-leaks@ scandal) B didn=t the butler do it? (seriously). Hasn=t the vast majority of faithful men been unfairly maligned enough as a result of a small number of deviant priests who sexually abused young people?       

Of all the many issues facing the Church at this time in history, Francis= pointed, public critiques of priests on the surface feel like part of Aa piling on@ that many priests feel they were already experiencing: from their parishioners, from those who no longer go to Church, from their Bishops, from the media, and from themselves: AIf we are far from Jesus Christ, we necessarily compensate for this with other, worldly attitudes. And so [we see] all these figures... priest-wheeler dealers, priest-tycoons...@  One priest-friend remarked when I told him this topic I was writing on asked,  ASo are you planning on beating yourself up in the process?@
           
That reaction kind of surprised me. Don=t we believe that the Holy Spirit seems to raise up the right man in each day and age to address the problems, the failures, the obstacles to the saving message of Jesus Christ being lived and proclaimed by the Church?  When Karol Wojtyla=s name was first announced on the balcony of St. Peters Square in 1978 and thousands of Italian spectators in stunned silence wondered where in the world was this first non-Italian pope in 450 years coming from? - few could=ve anticipated the global implications John Paul II=s papacy would have not just on the Church but on the entire world. His contributions to the fall of Communism can be traced to his leading the Church in advocating freedom as one of God=s most precious gifts to humanity. To those deprived of that gift, he became a global champion fighting for those oppressed. To those born into freedom, he became a voice of conscience reminding us that freedom Aconsists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.@ With John Paul II=s death only being 9 years ago, just that short distance has given us a bit more appreciation for some of the reasons the Lord raised John Paul to lead the Church at that time.
 
When Pope Benedict XVI shared that after much prayer and discernment that he believed the Lord was leading him to resign the Papacy a year ago, the consensus was that the Church needed a new leader to guide us through those various embarrassing failures and scandals. When Jorge Cardinal Borgoglio emerged as the new pope, taking the name AFrancis@ after St. Francis of Assisi that sent a not so subtle message about what was first and foremost on the new Pope=s mind and heart. Yes, as has been widely reported that his choosing this name was meant to be a call to Aremember the poor.@  But for me, the first thought that came to mind hearing the name AFRANCISCUS@ announced in St. Peter=s Square was how St. Francis of Assisi heard the voice of Christ calling out to him to ARebuild my church which you see is falling into ruins.@
The Holy Spirit is leading Pope Francis - and all of us in the Church - to confront this great challenge; looking at the sinfulness and brokenness of the Church. For most people, to hear global, international stories about impropriety in the Church B like an allegation of money laundering in the Vatican B while that=s embarrassing, it almost seems unreal, like a variation of The Godfather III or something. For most people though, they are definitely affected by their local parish priests. When AFather@ is present to a family at the tragic loss of a loved one; leading a couple through marriage preparations to the celebration of their wedding; spending hours talking to college students who are trying to figure out Awhat to do with their lives@ - those relationships and memories create an intimate bond between the priest and the people of God.  When people are well served, well loved by their priests, they don=t deny the reality of sin in humanity, but find the truth of scripture; >love covers a multitude of sins=(1 Peter 4:8). 
 
The contrary, though, is very true as well. When a priest is disinterested in the lives of his people; when the preaching comes across as harsh, focusing more on people=s sinfulness rather than our universal need for God=s mercy; when they see their priests living more comfortably or even extravagantly then the people they=ve been sent to serve - those experiences have the potential to undermine people=s faith. That=s what was at the heart of Francis= Chrism Mass last year. Pope Francis in talking about how the priest=s preaching of the Gospel B both in word and more importantly in deed is more effective when itAtouches their daily lives...to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the Aoutskirts@ where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith.@  The result, Pope Francis notes, is that our APeople thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes.@
 
           Francis, being an Archbishop of a local diocese would=ve had experiences with priests falling from one extreme to the other.  He would have first-hand knowledge of the hurt that we priests can cause through our failures, through our sinfulness, through our forgetting our need for God=s love, His mercy, His forgiveness ourselves.  Which explains why as a loving shepherd he is calling his fellow brother priests to deeper conversion first so that we can regain the moral authority to lead our people to experience the peace that comes from being reconciled with God and one another. 


Because he knows as Pope Benedict XVI knew, as Pope John Paul II knew
B as the Church has proclaimed for close to 2000 years;  that Jesus is truly the answer to whatever issues that people B both individually and collectively B are facing.   To those called to the great gift of priesthood B Francis is telling us who are on those front lines that the more people can see our love for Him manifesting itself in our lives and service, the more attractive Jesus becomes to the world. The more likely people will want to hear, want to know what the Lord says to themCthe more they will try to follow him and need his mercy and forgiveness when it inevitably becomes too hard and there=s a slip up.  The more likely the Church will be renewed and continue to be a prophetic and transformative voice to the world again.  We priests need to take the first steps - avoiding being smarmy is as good a place to start as any.

2 comments:

Father Nagel said...

Well said, brother! Let us pray for one another that we never become smarmy.... rather that we become healthy, happy, holy shepherds!

Father Nagel said...

Well said, brother! Let us pray for one another that we never become smarmy.... rather that we become healthy, happy, holy shepherds!