Christ-centered Shepherds of God’s People
POPE Francis, known as the “people’s pope,” has entered the sixth year of his pontificate (March 13, 2013-2018). He has often spoken insightfully on priests and religious. In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Francis invites everyone to daily engagement with Jesus. “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ…. I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her” [EG 3].
Pope Francis continues: “Each of us is very dear to God, who loves us, chooses us and calls us to serve…. We would do well each day to pray … to grow more like him who ‘no longer calls us servants but friends’ (Jn 15:15)” [May 29, 2016]. This is a clear challenge for clergy and religious: to be “close to God in prayer and close to the people” [January 9, 2018].
Everyone must daily ask: “Is Jesus Christ at the center of my life? And, what is my relationship with Jesus Christ?” [January 9, 2017]. Expressed simply, every vocation must be anchored in one’s friendship with Jesus.
Authentic Shepherding. Pope Francis boldly states: “People love their priests; they want and need their shepherds! The faithful never leave us without something to do…. There is a good and healthy tiredness. It is the exhaustion of the priest who wears the smell of the sheep, but also smiles the smile of a father rejoicing in his children or grandchildren…. The smell of the sheep and the smile of a father!” [April 2, 2015].
Speaking of the “priest-shepherd in his parish or in the mission entrusted to him,” Francis noted that this mission “brings him joy whenever he is faithful to it, whenever he does all that he has to do and lets go of everything that he has to let go of, as long as he stands firm amid the flock which the Lord has entrusted to him: Feed my sheep (cf. Jn 21:16-17)” [April 17, 2014].
“Have always in mind the example of the Good Shepherd, who came not to be served but to serve; to seek and save that which was lost” [April 17, 2016]. “Every ordained minister is called to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who gave His life for His sheep” [November 16, 2017].
Sharing People’s Lives. For Pope Francis, the work of priests and religious does not consist of “purely mechanical jobs, like running an office, building a parish hall…. For us priests, what happens in the lives of our people is not like a news bulletin: we know our people, we sense what is going on in their hearts. Our own heart, sharing in their suffering, feels ‘com-passion,’ is exhausted, broken into a thousand pieces” [April 2, 2015].
Pope Francis frequently reiterates: “I ask you in the name of Christ and the Church: never tire of being merciful” [April 21, 2013]. When he ordained thirteen priests on May 11, 2014, Francis said: “And here I want to pause to ask you: for the love of Jesus Christ, never tire of being merciful! Please!”
At the 2016 Chrism Mass, Francis noted: “As priests, we are witnesses to and ministers of the ever-increasing abundance of the Father’s mercy; we have the rewarding and consoling task of incarnating mercy, as Jesus did” [March 24, 2016]. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis quotes Thomas Aquinas, asserting that “mercy is the greatest of all virtues” and “it is proper to God to have mercy” [EG 37].
Hearts for the Poor. Pope Francis challenges his fellow priests and the religious to examine their authenticity in living spiritual poverty. Thus, in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis has a major section on the inclusion of the poor in the Church and society [EG 186-216]; he strongly reiterates his desire: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor” [EG 198]. Our Church needs priests and religious, living a simple life-style, who are Christ-centered shepherds of God’s holy people.