At his annual Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis said that a good priest is one who is close to his flock and who makes Jesus’ presence felt in people’s lives – as more than an abstract idea.
“A priest who is close to his people walks among them with the closeness and tenderness of a good shepherd; in shepherding them, he goes at times before them, at times remains in their midst and at other times walks behind them,” the Pope said March 29.
“We either make Jesus present in the life of humanity or let him remain on the level of ideas, letters on a page, incarnate at most in some good habit gradually becoming routine.”
Francis spoke to priests living in Rome about the “virtue of closeness” during the Chrism Mass of Holy Week, the Mass at which the Pope, as the bishop of Rome, blesses the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and the Chrism Oil, which will be used throughout the diocese over the coming year.
In his homily, he said that closeness is more than just a good action, but “an attitude that engages the whole person, our way of relating, our way of being attentive both to ourselves and to others…”
When people say that a priest is close to them, they usually mean two things, he explained. One, that the priest is always present to them and does not appear too busy to spend time with them. The other is that he speaks with everyone: young, old, poor, unbelievers. These are “street priests,” Francis said.
“Closeness is crucial for an evangelizer because it is a key attitude in the Gospel,” he continued. It is also the key to mercy, because “mercy would not be mercy,” if it was not carried out in proximity to the other person, like the works of the Good Samaritan.
The Pope also said he believes closeness is the key to truth. This is because truth is more than the definition of situations and things “from a certain distance,” but it is also fidelity. “It makes you name people with their real name, as the Lord names them, before categorizing them or defining ‘their situation,’” he noted.
He also warned against the temptation to turn truth into an idol, something which gives comfort, and is dressed up in the words of the Gospel, but which does not “let those words touch the heart.”
“Much worse, it distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus,” he stated.
He also described three areas where priests should be especially attentive to Mary’s words to the servants in the Gospel account of the Wedding at Cana: “Do everything Jesus tells you.”
The first is closeness in spiritual conversation. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is a good example of how to gently help people see and acknowledge their sins, Francis said.
“The Lord gives us a model of spiritual conversation; he knows how to bring the sin of the Samaritan woman to light without its overshadowing her prayer of adoration or casting doubt on her missionary vocation.”
The second area where priests need to be close to people is in confession. Just like Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “nor do I condemn you,” we too can add, “go and sin no more,” the Pope said. “The right tone of the words ‘sin no more” is seen in the confessor who speaks them and is willing to repeat them seventy times seven.”
And finally, priests need to be close to both God and their flock in their preaching, he noted, explaining that “in the homily, we can see how close we have been to God in prayer and how close we are to our people in their daily lives.”
He encouraged priests, if they feel far from God, to draw nearer to their people. The little ones, especially, will teach them “to look at Jesus in a different way.” And if priests begin to feel far from their people, they should approach the Lord and Scripture, he said.
“In the Gospel, Jesus will teach you his way of looking at people, and how precious in his eyes is every individual for whom he shed his blood on the Cross. In closeness to God, the Word will become flesh in you and you will become a priest close to all flesh.”
“Through your closeness to the people of God, their suffering flesh will speak to your heart and you will be moved to speak to God,” he continued. “You will once again become an intercessory priest.”