His Holiness said “preti ‘asettici’ non aiutano la Chiesa… Antiseptic/cold/indifferent” priests don’t help the Church. We could say “sterile”, but not in the sense that he warned old liberal women religious about being, whom Francis calls “zitelle”, because they are bound up in female machismo and don’t bear fruit. But I digress. No, Francis is talking about priests who are aloof, distant, cold. Don’t fall into the trap of reading “asettici” as “ascettici… ascetic”. That would have been a lot more fun.
The priest is called “to have a heart that is moved. “Sterile” priests or those ‘of the laboratory’, all clean and well-groomed, don’t help the Church!” I don’t think he is advocating that we dress like slobs. What pops into my mind is a concelebration with all those hideous flour sack albs… brrrr…. talk about sterile. But I digress.
The Holy Father goes on to use the “field hospital” image again. Field hospitals are a mess. He makes a good point. Priests cannot be emotionally detached, they must know what is going on in their parishes, they must care and they must pray for people. He asked his priests whether they are moved by the sufferings of the people they encounter. Do they weep for their sufferings? I doubt Francis is suggesting that priests go about weeping and wringing their hands. Well… maybe he is. I’ll bet Jonah was a sight as he roamed about Ninevah. But, wait… he was asking them to repent of and change their sinful ways or be slain by the Father of Mercy Himself.
Back to the Pope and his priests.
The Pope spoke about the importance of the Sacrament of Penance.
“… It is up to us, as ministers of the Church, to keep this message alive, above all in preaching and in our gestures, in signs and in pastoral choices, such as the decision to restore priority to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and at the same time to works of mercy.”
He followed up saying that priest confessors should not be either too rigid or too lax in the confessional. Who will disagree? At the same time, he doesn’t offer anything concrete about striking that balance. I will point out that the confessional is a tribunal in which the penitent – not the confessor – is the prosecuting attorney.
Finally, I did like the fact that he quoted the older, traditional form of the Missale Romanum when he spoke about priests shedding tears for their people before the Blessed Sacrament. He said, and this was a truly a poor choice of words which suggests that the Holy Father is out of touch with an important dimension of the lives of many of his flock. This is in the Italian account, not the English… and you have to ask why:
To explain, I’ll put to you some questions that help me when a priest comes to me…. [He must be talking about the days when he was a provincial or diocesan bishop] Tell me: Do you cry? Or have we lost tears? I remember that in the old Missals, those of another time [No… of our time, too, Your Holiness], that there is a very beautiful prayer to ask the gift of tears. The prayer started like this: “Lord, who commanded Moses to strike the stone in order that water would come, strike the stone so that tears…”: it was like that, more or less, that prayer. It was very beautiful. But, how many of us weep in the face of the suffering of a child, before the destruction of a family, before so many people who can’t find the path? The weeping of the priest… do you cry? Or in this presbyterate have we lost tears? Do you weep for your people? Tell me, do you pray a prayer of intercession before the Tabernacle? Do you struggle with the Lord for your people? Do you struggle with the Lord like Abraham struggled? And if there should be fewer? If there should be 25? And if there should be 20? That courageous prayer of intercession… But, let’s talk about parresia, of apostolic courage, and let’s think about pastoral plans… but that’s going alright: but the same parresia is also necessary in prayer. Struggle with the Lord, or discuss with the Lord how Moses did it, when the Lord was fed up, tired of his people and told him: “But you remain calm… I will destroy them all, and I will make you the head of another people”. No. No. If you destroy the people, destroy me too. But, these guys had chutzpah [to not write another thing – Ma, questi avevano i pantaloni!] Do we have the chutzpah [i pantaloni] to to struggle with God for our people?
A couple things.
First, one of the most powerful verses in the New Testaments is John 11:35:
ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς … Jesus wept.
Next, perhaps the Holy Father – who emphatically tells his priests to know their flocks and be with them in their sufferings – could also spare a little time for those who have in the past and still today suffered enormously at the hands of indifferent or domineering priests and bishops who dislike the traditional expression of our Catholic faith. Perhaps a little time could be spared also for them? Perhaps the Holy Father might encourage a shepherd who is supposed to know his flock also to open his heart to them and learn also the older form of Mass and sacraments and not to refer to them with opening statements like “Once upon a time…”. But I digress.
Note the context of “struggling” or “dickering” with God: the imminent destruction of the people by God Himself. This is not a fairy tale the Pope is addressing. The example concern the obliteration of the whole people and a restart. That adds a grim dimension to the Pope’s folksy points.
I recall the words of St. Augustine to his flock in Hippo. In a sermon, he gave his people a real talking to and then explained why he was laying it on so hard. Explained that if he didn’t preach his tough message he could not be saved. If they listened or didn’t listen he was going to preach anyway and thus save his own soul. “But” he concluded, “Nolo salvus esse sine vobis! … I don’t want to be saved without you!” (s. 17.2)
Back to that point about the prayer in the older Missal. I think his description of the older, traditional Missal is unfortunate and blinkered, but let that pass for now (cf. Summorum Pontificum). The prayer to which the Holy Father refers is in the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, but it doesn’t explicitly mention Moses.
It is in the section called “Orationes diversae… diverse prayers”, “diverse” in the sense of “various” not “contrasting”. These are orations that could be added by the priest after the obligatory prayers for the particular Mass formulary being used. For example, were I to say Mass (as I do) using the Votive Mass “for the remission of sins”, or “in time of war”, I might also add the prayer “ad petendam compunctionis cordis… for the petitioning compunction of heart”.
Here is the Collect:
Omnipotens et mitissime Deus, qui sitienti populo fontem viventis aquae de petra produxisti: educ de cordis nostri duritia lacrimas compunctionis; ut peccata nostra plangere valeamus, remissionemque eorum, te miserante, mereamur accipere.
I love that juxtaposition of perduco and educo. Subtle. Rich. Our Latin copia verborum never fails to satisfy.
Plango brings in a fantastic image. In the first place, it means “to strike, beat”. Waves plangent the rocks, palms drums, birds against snares with their wings. The verb is especially associated with beating one’s breast or head. St. Augustine mentions in a sermon how, when he spoke of God’s mercy, the congregation would strike their breasts with such force that it would rumble in the church. Of course plango is also beweep, bewail, wring one’s hands (see above).
Compunctio is “a puncture” and, in Christian Latin, “the sting of conscience, remorse”.
Almighty and most merciful God, who brought forth a font of living water from the rock for the sake of your thirsting people: draw forth tears of stinging remorse from the hardness of our heart; in order that we may be able to bewail our sins, and, you being merciful, merit to accept their remission.
Have you ever noticed that, after not shedding tears for a long time, those first tears really burn and sting?
This word compunctio shows up in the Latin 2002 Missale Romanum on Ash Wednesday, in the Post Communion: it is what Holy Church wants us to take with us out the door. It is a key theme, stressed in our liturgical prayers – always starting points for everything – for Lent.
The prayer about tears doesn’t mention Moses, as the Holy Father quips, but the image is clearly that of Numbers 20. And it is important that he struck the rock twice and it is important that the water is living water. But I digress.
The themes of compunction of heart and of the gift of tears have a deep and nearly unfathomable wealth in the spiritual writings of the saints and in liturgical texts.
Allow me to digress. Just a quick scan of the prayers yesterday, for Ash Wednesday during the blessing of ashes, at least in the traditional form I used yesterday – I didn’t bother to check the new form – offer the image of weeping prominently:
Almighty, everlasting God, spare those who are repentant, be merciful to those who pray to You, and graciously send Your holy angel from heaven to bless ? and hallow these ashes, that they may be a wholesome remedy for all who humbly implore Your holy Name; who accuse themselves by acknowledging their sins, who weep for their evil deeds in the sight of Your divine mercy;… Between the porch and the altar the priests the Lord’s ministers shall weep, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and shut not the mouths of them that sing to thee, O Lord?
And in Joel:
Thus says the Lord: Return to Me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.
We have lost so much of our patrimony in the last few decades. It’s enough to make a grown man weep.
Here is the video of the Holy Father’s time with the clergy of Rome.