As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis spoke frequently of the missionary character of the Church—mission, that is, not as a particular work of a certain group of people within the Church, but as the very nature of the Church as the presence of Christ in the world. “Teachers of the faith need to get out of their cave,” and the clergy “out of the sacristy.” Two things are clearly key elements of Pope Francis’ understanding of the priesthood: greatness and nothingness. He has made it clear how these two aspects must be held together in the conformity of the priest to divine filiation in the person of Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Bergoglio required parish priests to live with their people, and in the same conditions as their people, even in radical simplicity and poverty. This, he argued, is necessary for the pedagogy of the gospel, and the mediating role of the priest. It recalls the witness of the early mendicant orders in the face of a world hostile to the gospel.
First, the nothingness. Some traditionalists fear that Pope Francis, with his emphasis on the poor and the lost, sees the priest as an “activist.” Where is the liturgical–theological core of the life of the priest? Francis speaks warmly against ambition, clericalism, and careerism within the Church, and his leadership in Buenos Aires showed a man who administers with a light hand, wary of political intrigue, but with directness and strength.
Essential to leadership in the Church, according to Bishop Jorge Eduardo Lozano, a former auxiliary to Archbishop Bergoglio, is “purity of heart.” Conformity to Christ through purity of heart allows the diocesan priest to be wholly in the world, in the active mediation of grace, not only through the sacraments, but also through tireless giving of self in a variety of ways.
In this year’s Chrism Mass homily, the pope says that even in the most banal neediness, people show forth the deep desire to “be anointed.” The priest must not wait, but go out, because “the power of grace comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the gospel to others.” This is the challenge of the parish priest: to live internally in conformity to Christ, but to live this in the world, in his community. This call to “nothingness” as a call to total service is not a loss of self; it is not a denial of personal gifts, desires, or well-being.
The priesthood is best understood as conformity to Jesus Christ as sent by the Father. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “Jesus’ whole being is mission.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that the Son can “do nothing of himself” (5:19), and likewise, the apostles can “do nothing without” Him.
The experience of the priesthood is precisely an experience of powerlessness: The success of priests’ work is a function of “having nothing of their own” and receiving the work of God through their own actions. The work of the priesthood has the structure of divine filiation, a radical humility in the life of “being sent.” This is not “mere activism,” but a life of charity, a heart of love. Pope John Paul II wrote, for this reason, that the measure of the success of the priest is love: not the priest’s love of God, but his love for God’s people, insofar as he comes to share in the prior reality of divine charity.
Thus, against an “activist” interpretation of the work of the priest, Pope Francis offers the following tag: “unction, not function.” He says, “it is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to put out into the deep, where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is unction, not function, and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.” The message is above all one of trust. The success of the Church in the “New Evangelization,” Pope Benedict XVI writes, is first and foremost a renewed trust that God’s grace goes before, and abides in, the Church.
As to the “greatness” of the priesthood, this too goes back to Jesus Christ and the sacramental structure of ordination. Christ gives his own mission and authority in a particular way to the apostles, “binding them to it” so that they can do the work which is not their own, but the Lord’s. It is true in some sense that Pope Francis is not a “liturgical pope,” as one might expect from a Jesuit.
But was Benedict XVI a “liturgical pope”? The flurry of comparisons between the two that followed Francis’ election—implying that Benedict lacked moral humility and cared excessively for pomp and luxurious vestments—has finally abated. Pope Benedict XVI lived in great simplicity; in the end, he was a theologian and a contemplative, and he bore the signs of his office with dignity. Neither liturgical traditionalists nor so-called “progressive” Catholics were happy with the Motu Proprio on the celebration of the Roman Rite of 1962. Now, the former long for the “liturgical papacy” of Benedict XVI, and the latter are baffled by Francis’ uncompromising stance on moral issues.
Pope Francis poses an appropriate challenge to liturgical traditionalists, to reflect on the purpose of the liturgy and the whole nature of the Church. Ratzinger himself challenged a certain false-traditional mindset, critical of liturgical reform, as a form of von Harnackian rationalism. Like Pope John Paul II before him, Benedict defended the integrity of Vatican II from the desire of many, both liberal and conservative, to “bypass the rest of the Church and dig their own private channel to the apostles.”
Francis reminds us that it is dangerous to locate the burden of the greatness of the priesthood in the visibility of liturgical functions alone. The Mass points to the Cross: the Eucharist derives its meaning and its power from it. The Cross, said Cardinal Bergoglio in 2008, is the act of total self-giving of the Lord. “God is a gift,” and what is small and mundane is prepared as a place in which God comes to dwell.
The greatness of the priesthood is not only that the priest consecrating the Eucharist holds the Lord of life in his hands, but that he shares this gift. And in knowing that it is not for him, alone, he experiences in a unique way the gift of God’s love on the Cross—his love for the Church, for his own people.
To the parish priest of today, Pope Francis issues a call: to a deeper faith and life of prayer, to purity and holiness of life, to a trust in the call of the Father, and above all to a life of ceaseless sacrificial love and preaching—a service that is in turn rooted in prayer and holiness. Pope Francis also calls for discomfort, reminding us all that “if you proclaim (Jesus’) message, they are going to persecute you, they are going to slander you, they are going to set traps to deliver you to the courts and have you killed. But you must continue forward.” Persecution may lie ahead, not simply that of holding unpopular positions on moral teachings—but actual persecution. Take care, “be clever like the serpent,” but make no mistake: you are sent.
In this, the priest is both sacramentum (sacrament) and exemplum (example). To all Christians, this is a profound call to faith as martyrdom. We stand in a time in which teaching and Christian witness require intelligence and pedagogical subtlety, rigorous catechizing, but also worldly prudence. Pope Francis, through his teaching on priestly witness, challenges a certain kind of conservative Christian to realize his duty to be a light in the world. Nothing less is asked than a witness to the total mercy of God.
This demands self-criticism, a renewal of faith, of trust, and in the final account, a charity that gives everything away. Jesus Christ demanded much of his apostles; it is a heartening witness to the laity that, for the sake of the life of the Church, Pope Francis demands much of his priests.
Paige Hochschild is assistant professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University.