Pope Francis at his best

Last week I was in Rome leading a pilgrimage of American journalists, trying to help them get to know better the past and the present of the Church. The timing couldn’t have been better, however, because it coincided with the Jubilee for Priests during this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. About 6,000 priests from across the world came — and the Vatican really provided us a powerful program. 

On Wednesday there were pilgrimages through the Jubilee Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Confession from Missionaries of Mercy, and catechetical talks in various languages, with the English conference being given by the incomparable Bishop Robert Barron. 

On Friday, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which since 2002 has also been the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests, we priests concelebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Square with Pope Francis, who after Mass spent more than an hour individually greeting priest concelebrants. At night, the vigil of the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the priests were able to pray the Rosary to the Mother of the Clergy with seminarians from all over the world studying in Rome.

The clear highlight of the Priestly Jubilee, however, was a three-part, three-location retreat on Thursday preached by Pope Francis to his brother priests. It took place in the three “other” major Basilicas of Rome — St. John in the Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls — with priests divided into national and language groups. The pope preached an hour-long meditation in each Basilica with a live-stream into the others, with simultaneous translation for those not fluent in Italian. 

I’ve long thought that the pope is at his best and most natural preaching retreats. When he gives Spiritual exercises to his fellow religious, brother priests and bishops, he normally takes the humble “bushel basket” off of his deep interior life and we’re able to get a transparent window into his intense relationship with the Word of God, with the Blessed Trinity, with Mary and the saints. 

Soon after his election, I tried to read everything that he had published in English and in Spanish: his book-length interviews, speeches, pre-papal homilies and more. But by far the two most helpful and revealing resources were books of his retreat talks. One was “Meditaciones Para Religiosos,” a Spanish compilation of retreat meditations given to religious men and women. The second is entitled “In Him Alone is Our Hope,” which is the English translation of the Spiritual exercises he preached to the Spanish bishops in 2006. 

In them we meet a Jesuit retreat master at the height of the art of group Spiritual direction, guiding us into the drama of Christ’s life and the life of faith. There we see, in my opinion, the “real Father Bergoglio” at his most brilliant, challenging and encouraging, where his faith, hope and love for God and others most impressively shine.

I’ve often thought if the pope’s critics were to meet him in these sources, where he exposes the depth of his interiority, his mind and heart and his approach to the Christian way lived in the Church, they might be able, more calmly and accurately, to understand and categorize those aspects of his papacy that until now they have found difficult to grasp or even troubling. 

On June 2, the priests of the world got a glimpse of the “real Bergoglio.” Seated at a traditional retreat master’s table, speaking comfortably and confidently, he spoke about his favorite theme, God’s mercy. There’s no way to do justice to the 15,000 words he preached that day, and so I’d urge you to watch them with English translation (im.va) or read them (w2.vatican.va). But I’d like to share a few highlights. 

In the first meditation, he pondered how “nothing unites us to God more than an act of mercy” and urged us to treat mercy “as a verb,” receiving it and sharing it. He gave an extraordinary reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and pondered how the returned prodigal is a model for us of the “embarrassed dignity” that is our Christian condition as reconciled sinners. “The Lord not only cleanses us,” he emphasized, “but crowns us, giving us dignity,” leading us from the state of “estrangement to celebration.” 

In the second meditation, Pope Francis spoke about how God transforms our sins into “wineskins” from which the “new wine” of His merciful love overflows in acts of mercy toward others. God seeks to change our reconciled hearts from “broken cisterns” into “vessels of mercy.” Great sinners are therefore able, in turn, to become greater saints of mercy, like we see in the lives of Paul, Peter, John, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius, and Blessed José Gabriel Brochero.

Our Lady, he added, “is the simple yet perfect vessel that both receives [preveniently] and bestows mercy.” Her Magnificat reveals, he said, that from generation to generation, “history is mercy.” 

In the final conference, Pope Francis focused on how the Works of Mercy give off what St. Rose of Lima called “good odor of Christ” and the “light of [God’s] mercy” in contrast to the stench and darkness of sin. “Being merciful is not only ‘a way of life’” for a Christian, he said, “but ‘the way of life.’” Without mercy, he stressed, “I am not even a Christian.” The Church, therefore, aims not just toward Corporal and Spiritual “Works of Mercy” but to create a “culture of mercy.” Basing himself on the scene of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, he encouraged priests as confessors to be “signs and instruments” of God as Good Shepherd, Good Samaritan, Father, and Just Judge in His “merciful love for the sinner.” 

At the end of the day, he forthrightly noted that he hears from some priests who think that he chides us too often, and acknowledged “there has been a bit of that.” But after stating that he has been edified by the example of so many good priests who give off the “perfume” of Christ’s mercy, he read a letter he had just received from a pastor of three parishes thanking him for precisely for this “occasional scolding.” The pope suggested that his papal fraternal corrections are themselves acts of mercy for priests and for those we serve, helping us to become better, bigger wineskins to pour out the vintage of God’s merciful love to others and to form the “culture of mercy” that the Church, as leaven, is entrusted by God to engender. 

It was Pope Francis at his best, trying to help his priest brothers, and all we serve, become better and more merciful like the Father. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

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