by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
 Many bishops, priests and seminarians feel that they are under fire from Pope Francis, that they are always somehow wrong, that they are under-appreciated and harshly judged – often enough for merely fulfilling their vocational responsibilities. At least in my circle of friends, we want to say to him: "Holy Father, please show us some mercy!"


The pope excoriated Church leaders who he said sometimes bury their heads in the sand and hide behind rigid doctrine while families suffer. . . . The pope's tough speech on Saturday night was the latest in a series of his admonitions to his bishops to be more flexible and merciful without changing basic doctrine. In it, he appeared to criticise the ultra-conservatives who nearly derailed some of the synod's openings. He said the synod had "laid bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church's teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families." – Reuters
 
At the end of the synod, Pope Francis condemned bishops and archbishops who hide behind rigid doctrines while families suffer. He called for bishops to address issues "fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand" and said the gathering had revealed "the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church's teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families." He criticised those with blinkered viewpoints and said the Church could not hope to appeal to younger generations when it is at times "encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible." – Christian Today

"Pope rebukes Catholic elders" – Washington Post headline


Catholic bishops handed Pope Francis an embarrassing defeat Saturday by withholding support for one of his signature initiatives – a pathway for Catholics who have divorced and remarried to receive Communion – thus showing the strength of conservative resistance to the pope’s liberalizing agenda. The pope responded with a speech that, while largely hopeful, betrayed his irritation with the bishops, complaining of "conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints" and "closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church’s teachings, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families." – Wall Street Journal


What brought such headlines? In the Pope’s final address to the General Assembly of the Synod on the Family after a cordial litany of thank you’s to all those involved in the preparation and execution of the Synod, Francis launched into a rather depressing and demoralizing diatribe similar to the one he delivered to the Curia Romana in which he chastised them for their 15 most common "maladies" during what was supposed to be a warm and friendly exchange of "Christmas Greetings." Not a few in Rome and the Vatican have characterized that discourse to the Curia as "merciless" and "excessive."

In his address on Saturday, October 24, which lasted 30 minutes, Pope Francis lambasted conservative pastors, bishops and priests, who have been fighting the good fight in upholding traditional Catholic doctrine and morals, painting them as obnoxious, close-minded, pusillanimous and pitiless pharisees of the contemporary Church and society.

Once again, as in his "Christmas Greetings" to the Roman Curia in 2014, Pope Francis (who has been dubbed "the Pope of Mercy") showed little mercy toward those pastors who believed they were being loyal sons of the Church by handing on the Church’s doctrinal and moral teachings. He tends to paint with a rather wide brush, condemning his brother bishops and priests as though each of them has dealt harshly when ministering, for example, to engaged couples; unwed mothers who present their children for Baptism; divorced and remarried persons.

Perhaps Pope Francis had a very bad experience of bishops and priests in his native Argentina, but this shouldn’t lead him to conclude that all bishops and priests lack the proper human, theological and pastoral formation needed to follow the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd. I, for one, have never deliberately abused my priestly authority and powers by excluding a person from the grace and mercy of Almighty God. At the same time, however, as an obedient priest and servant of the Gospel, I have sought to abide by the teachings and laws of my Church, and never changing them arrogantly to suit my particular likes and dislikes or to win a popularity contest.

Of course, there have been and always will be certain bishops and priests who fail in their sacred ministry; who don’t always succeed in dealing with fellow human beings as their human and Christian dignity demands; who don’t treat sinners as should just and merciful shepherds ordained in the Name and Person of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

However, it is not true that most bishops and priests (or even a significant minority) have turned the confessional into a "torture chamber" (a favorite expression of the Pope). If a person goes to a priest for confession and doesn’t express contrition, the priest cannot absolve that person. This doesn’t make that priest a bad man or a bad priest. On the contrary, he has done his duty. Just as God doesn’t force His mercy and love upon us, so too the priest in the confessional cannot force the penitent to repent sincerely of his sins – the first step in the whole process of reconciliation.

The Code of Canon Law (based on sound principles of moral theology) describes the priest in the confessional as having the double role of shepherd (pastor) and judge. Priests have a solemn obligation to safeguard the dignity and integrity of the sacraments they celebrate, and the Sacrament of Penance is no exception to that rule. To do this, the priest surely must express divine mercy and forgiveness, however, before he is able to absolve the penitent, he must judge to the best of his ability the "matter" of the confession, which consists in the particular sins, mortal and venial that are confessed, as well as the penitent’s genuine contrition and purpose of amendment.

Thus, the distinction between sinner and sin remains theologically and pastorally valid. The priest, like God Himself, Who is all-good and Who can never love what is odious to His very essence, must hate the sin committed. At the same time, the priest must love the sinner as Jesus loved the woman caught in adultery and called her to "go and sin no more" or as the Father Rich in Mercy ("Dives in Misericordia") welcomed back home the Prodigal Son who, "coming to his senses," begged for forgiveness, having sinned against God and against his father. In other words, the priest needs to know that the penitent has "come to his senses" and plans to "sin no more" – at least as that is humanly possible to intend.

The priest concludes the Sacrament of Confession imposing, like a just judge, a suitable penance, so that the penitent may make amends to God for his sins. As the great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich von Bonhoeffer once wrote: "There is no such thing as cheap grace."

Following the example of Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers, priests must undoubtedly focus on God"s super-abundant mercy towards all people, for Jesus did in fact come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. That having been said, in order for our ministry of reconciliation to bear much fruit, we cannot divorce mercy from truth and justice for they are all intimately and inexorably linked in the economy of salvation.

Furthermore, if, in our priestly ministry, we deliberately fail to remind our flocks of the four last realities (death, judgment, heaven and hell), will we have been good shepherds to the sheep after all, or will we have comported ourselves more like the false shepherds condemned by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus Himself when He spoke of "wolves in sheep’s clothing"? What priest does not tremble when he reads the divine denunciation spoken by the mouth of Hosea: ". . . with you is my contention, O priest. . . . My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me" (4:4-6).

Perhaps some examples from daily life can help here. If a physician knows a patient to have a malignancy and fails to share that knowledge with the patient (on the pretext of not "upsetting" the patient), is he not guilty of malpractice? If a parent or teacher fails to correct the bad behavior of a child, is that person not complicit in the future far more serious failings of that child-become-adult? Indeed, to point out failings and to present the truth is a great work of mercy.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently made the telling remark that many people do not avail themselves of God’s mercy for the simple reason that they don’t think they have done anything wrong, to begin with! Hence, the need to share the truth in love. Returning to the Pope’s broadside, it is interesting to see how the Wall Street Journal (and other news outlets) saw his remarks as "pay-back" for the opposition of bishops to what many considered the papal plan for the Synod.

Whether or not that is an accurate assessment is beside the point; it is significant that secular media perceive it to be so – and that is most unfortunate for two reasons.

First, the Second Vatican Council and all magisterial documents since have repeatedly noted that bishops and priests are the closest collaborators of the Pope. Public embarrassment and humiliation of one’s closest collaborators is not generally considered "good form" in the world of business or politics, let alone in a religious environment.

Second, the Pope consistently – before and during the Synod – called for "parrhesia" or frankness in the Synod’s discussions. Can one then castigate men for doing what they were encouraged to do? Many observers have commented that they cannot recall a single pope of the past hundred years who has ever subjected his clergy to public chastisement.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I can say with assurance that in the United States, if a priest spoke harshly to his people from the pulpit (or even in private conversation), he would be summarily removed from his post and sent on for "anger management."

Many bishops, priests and seminarians feel that they are under fire from Pope Francis, that they are always somehow wrong, that they are under-appreciated and harshly judged – often enough for merely fulfilling their vocational responsibilities. At least in my circle of friends, we want to say to him: "Holy Father, please show us some mercy!"

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