Did Pope Francis insult some young priests? Fr. Z opines and tells a story.

Francis scowl frown glareThis isn’t the sort of thing that should pull much of our attention or energy.  However, I have been asked about it in email by a surprising number of people, including priests.

It seems that the site Messa in latino picked up on an anecdote recounted by a French site Benoit etmoi.  Here’s my translation from the French, which seems to be the original of the anecdote.  I’m cutting out the first part, just to get at the core of the anecdote itself.   Mind you, we are dealing with something that happened recently, after this spring or early summers traditional round of diocesan ordinations to the priesthood.  However, we are also dealing with something that it second hand at best.

A group of young priests from the same diocese, who were just ordained, made a pilgrimage together to Rome. They were not traditionalists, but young priests of today, white shirt with discreet collar, [in some European countries you will see during the summer priests in a white clerical shirt with “tab” collar] classic, pious, normal, very happy with the gift of Christ they had just received. Naturally, they asked and obtained (the chance) to have dinner at Santa Marta and to be presented to the Pope, and also to concelebrate with him at Mass the next day.

They arrived at Santa Marta at the designated time, and went to the place indicated. A secretary pointed them out to the Pope who was approaching. The Pope: “Where are you from?” They, proudly: “Of the Diocese of X”.  And he, with a sour expression [avec la mine des mauvais jours]: “Ah, X, there are still many priests there. That means that there is a problem, a problem of discernment.” And he continues his journey.

The young priests, dismayed, looked at each other, conferred, and left without eating.  And the next day, they spared themselves the concelebration at Santa Marta.

Okay… what to do with this.  And, mind you, I’m doing this here because I’ve had a lot of requests.

It could be that these young men mistook the Pope’s expression.  Some people’s default face isn’t always cheerful looking.

It could be that these young men mistook the Pope’s words.  There could be a language difference.

However, since there were a few of them, they probably were not all mistaken in their interpretation and it drove them to leave and not come back.

Popes kid around with seminarians and priests.  John Paul II sure did.  Here is one of my own anecdotes with John Paul.  I’ve never told this one here before.

Since my seminary in Rome was named after JPII, we seminarians were often called to serve his Masses.  Hence, I had quite a few opportunities as a seminarian and as a deacon.  I was a deacon often enough that the Holy Father got to know me.  One day, as deacon, I brought the thurible into the small sacristy tucked away near the altar of the Pietà (they laid our our dalmatics, etc., on the altar beneath the Pietà – that wasn’t cool or anything…) for the Pope, as celebrant, to “charge”.  As I approached he said in Italian, “You again!”  As I held it up he said, “Which seminary are you from?”  Of course he knew.  He asked every time.  “The John Paul the Second International Seminary, Your Holiness.”  With clearly mock dismay, he almost bellowed, “Terribile! Terribile!”  Everyone was amused, including myself.  Then he became very grave.  Leaning in almost nose to nose, he repeatedly pounded me hard on the chest with his finger and said, punctuating every word, “Tu… deve essere serio.  You… have to be serious.”  “Serio” means “serious”, but also “focused, earnest”.

That experience was a little frightening, to be frank.  First, that was the POPE.  Also, that was Pope Wojtyla.  It is a bit cliché to speak of what it felt like when he came into a room, but I guarantee you he was like no one else I’ve seen.  Seeing him come in or meeting him briefly is one thing.  Having him pound you repeatedly on the chest nose to nose is another.

Clearly the saint was trying in an extremely personal moment to inspire a man to something more than mediocrity.  After all, my seminary had his name.  Ergo, we reflected him, in a way.  We had to live up to that.

Let’s just say that I have not forgotten that moment.

It could be that Pope Francis was trying to do something similar with these young priests, but missed the mark.

“Ah, X, there are still many priests there. That means that there is a problem, a problem of discernment.”

It could be a kind of joking, “Is this the best they can do in X?”

Hah! Hah! Hah!… or not.

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that priests – men in general, but priests and military especially – often show affection through hard ribbing.  And it can get a little sharp.

Another thing that this anecdote can teach us is that pebbles, when dropped from a great height, even when small can, do damage.  Fathers… bishops… be careful out there.

Yet another thing that this anecdote can teach us is that we mustn’t allow ourselves to melt like snowflakes when something rough comes along.

We priests especially have to have a thick hide.  I’m concerned that the young men who have grown up in the relative peace of the JPII and BXVI years of aspiration to priesthood and then then beginning seminary, are not – how to say this – acquainted with battle yet.  They don’t have the slightest idea what seminary was like a couple decades ago, or what the majority of lib pastors did to new priests – and can do – who are of faithful Catholic disposition.  Those days are returning, I’m afraid.  We have to buckle it on and get ready.

In any event, I am not entirely sure what happened between the Pope and those young priests.  It seems to have left them with a less than optimal impression.

If any of them every read this, my reaction to a second hand anecdote, I would just say:

  • Don’t let this get you down.
  • You have a lot of time ahead as priests.
  • Stick together.
  • Be serious.

The moderation queue is ON.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Francis, Mail from priests, Priests and Priesthood, Seminarians and Seminaries, The Drill and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. graytown says:

    Fr Z,

    Kind of reminds me of the quip used when running into a buddy at the local watering hole – ” I guess they’ll let anyone in here “.

    I think the Holy Father was trying to humor them, but they were caught off guard.

    [Exactly. Also, let’s not forget that the Holy Father is Argentinian. I am told by many South Americans that they are known for their… “special” brand of humor and modes of expression.]

  2. ghp95134 says:

    Fr.Z writes: …Leaning in almost nose to nose, [Pope St. John Paul II] repeatedly pounded me hard on the chest with his finger…

    So Father Z …. YOU are a third-class relic?



    [If that is how relic-ness is conferred, I guess I am. I had better be wary the next time I am in a big crowd of Catholics devoted to JPII.]

  3. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I had a headmistress once who, for an April Fool’s joke, announced that P.E. had been cancelled and yard-weeding/general clean up had been put in its place. No one laughed, including those who knew it was meant to be funny. As I was reminded recently, on this very site, humor delivered with bad timing can be damaging.

  4. LarryW2LJ says:

    Polish men, in particular, seem to show affection by hard ribbing. My uncles and my father were all like that. As a youngster, it took some getting used to. As an adolescent, I became fond of it. As an adult, I find myself doing the same, at times.

  5. padredana says:

    Do we even know if this story is true?

  6. Fr_Sotelo says:

    So true. As a newly ordained priest, I took jokes and ribbing from priests ordained in the 1930’s and 1940’s, who could never be accused of being libs. A young priest has to have a thick skin and not take himself too seriously. If this incident caused these guys to skip Mass with the pope, I can only smile. They have no idea what other comments await them.

  7. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    No matter what any prelate, priest, deacon, or lay parish-power-wielder may say or do, we must, with God’s help, preserve our *inner peace,* a peace which is a fruit of Holy Spirit, and which no one can take from us, unless we let them. This peace is what God desires for us, for it is in peace and confidence and abandonment to the will of God, that we can best hear the “light silent sound”* of the Lord’s voice speaking to us. And then, if we conserve this inner peace, too, our evangelization efforts will bear more fruit, as we reveal that peace to others – one example of the wonderful treasures in store for them if they, too, place God at the center of their lives.

    1 Kings 19:12

  8. Joy65 says:

    I give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt (at least this time) and I pray for the priests that this encounter has NO negative outcome in their priestly vocations.

  9. Joy65 says:

    Oh and I always pray for the Pope as well.

  10. Mike says:

    All if the above is very much to the point, however, the seminarians missed dinner and Mass with the Holy Father? That is significant, and, I don’t know, but one would think thru back channels a clarification would be made by the Pope’s secretary? The silence is not reassuring.

  11. un-ionized says:

    Would it have furthered the joke to go to dinner and exhibit appalling table manners?

  12. Gregg the Obscure says:

    I had an attempt at humor blow up in my face. One of the employees in my supervision had been under disciplinary action for several performance and behavioral shortcomings throughout her first year on the job. The last work day before Christmas I customarily let everyone go home early, so I walked up to her desk and said “Well, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Time to go.” She thought I was firing her.

  13. tdhaller says:

    I wonder if it’s possible that either Pope Francis’ French isn’t 100% solid, or the young priests simply misheard. If he said “il y a encore [pas] beaucoup de prêtres” (the “pas”, in true South American fashion, just breathed as a short p’ or pa’), we have “there are still [not] many priests there”. Which appears to make way more sense, especially since he talks about a “problem of discernment” next. Occam’s Razor.

    [I don’t have any indication that the priests were French or what languages were attempted.]

  14. Geoffrey says:

    Fr Z, have you ever given any thought to one day writing your memoirs?


  15. JabbaPapa says:

    Well, hmmm, there is one ironic use of problema in Italian which might explain this, which is that a diocese with many priests would be “a problem” … for those hostile to the Church and to the Faith.

  16. JabbaPapa says:

    [I don’t have any indication that the priests were French or what languages were attempted.]

    I think the only place in France I’ve ever seen priests in white shirt and roman collar is Lourdes, and they were not French — but French-speaking African clergy can dress that way.

  17. Ignatius says:

    As an Argentinian myself (and no rabid fan of Pope Francis as my former Archbishop, if I can put it that way), I believe that this could have been indeed a joke. He is prone to bad jokes. And here, perhaps as a result of our roots in Spain, even the most Catholic person is a little bit anti-clerical. In Spanish, I can imagine him saying facetiously “¿De dónde son? ¿De la diócesis X? ¡Uf! Tienen un problema de discernimiento ahí… ¡hay muchos curas!” (many priests mean a lot of “lío”).


    [¡hay muchos curas!” (many priests mean a lot of “lío” … INTERESTING.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  18. robin says:


    The diocesan Extraordinary Mass in my area a nominal 4 priests that offer Mass. One of them is of Polish origin, to say the least he can really get the laity, and other clergy (at least one that I have firsthand knowledge of), rubbed the wrong way. Personally, I think he is one of the best priests ever. He does not mince words and is not competing in a popularity contest. It appears he is on a mission to save as many souls as possible, at least to me. Even though I do not catch everything he is trying to get across, it is clear his intent is just.

    Full disclosure, I do have some Polish heritage and experienced the frankness of that culture growing up.

    In a conversation with fellow parishioners a year or two ago after Mass, it was clear that I was the only one in the dialog that appreciated the sermon we just heard. Then I asked the others in the conversation if any of their heritages was Polish – answer, NO. With a smile I told them that do not know has Tough Polish Love is.

    I want to thank a previous post that reminded me of this occasion. Being an All-American Mutt I really find richness in the diverse heritages we have as Catholics, some more than others…

    May God Bless your efforts Fr.Z

  19. Fr. W says:

    Most likely a misunderstood attempt at humor. Shortly after Francis was elected, a classmate of mine from the seminary was named a bishop. When my friend had the opportunity to meet the Holy Father some months afterwards he introduced himself and added “I am one of the first bishops you apponted”. The Holy Father responded: “Even Popes make mistakes”.

    [Sounds about right.]

  20. giovanni_711 says:

    Thank you for sharing this anecdote about the late Pope Papa Wojtyla Fr. Z, absolutely beautiful. It’s consistent with what I have heard or read about him. I have no idea about the other story, other than to say prayers for our Holy Father are always in order.

  21. pelerin says:

    I always remember being surprised by the words of a young priest who on finding out that I was under instruction before being received into the Church commented ‘why on earth would you want to become a Catholic?’ That was 52 years ago and my first introduction into Catholic humour.

  22. Pingback: MONDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

  23. GregB says:

    I make no assumption as to whether this incident is true or not, but Pope Francis has a history that is missing from this article. His history is one of chewing out the Curia and having such frequent resort to ad hominems that there is a web site called “The Pope Francis Little Book of Insults” dedicated to listing them. The Pope has a history of giving people the Prophet Jeremiah treatment.

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