Experience being disciples: the letter of Pope Francis to priests

By Diego Fares SJ, 5 September 2021
Priests of the Diocese of Parramatta are seen during the Chrism Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta in March 2021. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


Pope Francis penned a Letter to Priests to thank and encourage them.[1] It was dated August 4 2019, the liturgical memorial of the Curé d’Ars. Finding ourselves among the addressees, we believe that this letter, addressed to a particular group – all the priests of the world – deserves a response more than a comment, to share the echoes of these words in our hearts.

First of all, reading this letter arouses in us priests gratitude to the pope for his concern. With this letter Francis came to look for us where we are, battered and on the side of the road. He has seen how much we are aggrieved and afflicted, and he approached us with the “powerful weapon” of gratitude, urging us to renew our priestly courage and place ourselves, without delay, in the heart of the Church – in Mary – with that spirit of “praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present.”

His threefold gaze

Francis’ addressees are not priests in the abstract. Rather, each one of us is a priest in the concrete, noticed and called by him in a very personal way.

When the pope thanks us “in the name of the holy and faithful people of God,” it is clear he looks at priests as he looks at the People of God, the people who receive through them the Lord’s grace. This gaze is already consoling in itself. Through it, in fact, the people of God, who love and appreciate their priests, help them to calibrate the mystery hidden in each one of them: to continue to be themselves, with all their virtues and faults, while in every priestly action they act in persona Christi and distribute the sacraments, transmitting grace in a concrete and effective way.

The courage that the pope desires for every priest is that which is born and renewed from the gaze of Christ, who says to them: “I do not call you servants any longer … I have called you friends” (John 15:15).[2] The gaze that the pope turns to the priests is that of Jesus. Francis exhorts us to focus on “memory of the Lord’s presence in our lives and his merciful gaze, which inspired us to put our lives on the line for him and for his people.” And he adds: “We know that it is not easy to stand before the Lord [in prayer] and let his gaze examine our lives, heal our wounded hearts and cleanse our feet of the worldliness accumulated along the way, which now keeps us from moving forward.” The source of joy and apostolic courage is to be found only in this gaze.

Thirdly, the pope’s gaze is that of Mary. He shared with some priests this confidence: “Whenever I visit a Marian shrine, I like to spend time looking at the Blessed Mother and letting her look at me. I pray for a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart.”

Francis focuses these three good ways he sees priests – like the faithful people of God do, as Jesus does, and like the Virgin Mary – in three priestly attitudes he described with pictorial precision: “I turn to you,” “to each of you,” “you who leave everything,” “who bear the burden” and “carry out your mission as service” to “care for and to accompany God’s people.” The pope addresses priests who “have quietly left all behind,” who are “immersed in the daily lives of your communities,” “amid weariness,” and who serve “without fanfare and at personal cost.” It is a sacrifice in which beauty is present, because, as the letter says, those who work in this way “are writing the finest pages of the priestly life.”

The three approaches are eminently priestly. They express, in terms appropriate to our sensitivity today, the doctrine of Orders. Orders and Marriage are sacraments aimed “at the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the people of God.”[3]

The willingness to “leave everything quietly” is due to the virtues of generosity and humility. But we know that at certain moments the abstract mention of a virtue can drive away and discourage, while when it is concretized in a gesture, it can bring the heart closer and inflame it. By choosing this second path, which leads him to concretize every virtue, Francis touches the hearts of the recipients of his letter and broadens their horizons.


The spirit of the letter shines through from the outset and is explicit in a consideration that the pope inserts in a note when he describes the paternity of the bishop, showing that solicitude for which we thanked him at the beginning: “Spiritual fatherhood requires a bishop not to leave his priests as orphans; it can be felt not only in his readiness to open his doors to priests, but also to seek them out in order to care for them and to accompany them.”

“Care” is one of the key words in this letter. It and the accompaniment of God’s faithful people occupy the center of the letter, because what the pope desires is to promote a culture of “pastoral care,” the only way capable of countering that culture of abuse, which has become fraudulently present among us and causes so much pain.[4]

In many passages the pope openly thanks the priests who “care” for their brothers in ministry, who feed God’s faithful people. And in turn, he, a priest among others, thanks the Lord for his care for us, which is manifested above all in the care that God’s faithful people have for their shepherds: “Let us give thanks for the holiness of the faithful people of God, whom we are called to shepherd and through whom the Lord also shepherds and cares for us. He blesses us with the gift of contemplating that faithful people ‘in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.’”

In order to keep courage in our hearts, Francis invites us not to neglect the two fundamental bonds of the priesthood: that with Jesus and that with the faithful people.

Spiritual accompaniment

Speaking of the bond that binds us to Jesus, Francis exhorts priests in this way: “In this sense, I would like to encourage you not to neglect spiritual accompaniment.” We note how the pope does not use the classic terms “spiritual father,” “spiritual director,” “accompanist,” or “counselor” here: he simply speaks of a “brother,” and then describes some aspects of that relationship. It is a matter of “a brother with whom you can speak, reflect, discuss and discern, sharing with complete trust and openness your journey,  a wise brother with whom to share the experience of discipleship.”

The secret lies in concretely establishing that asymmetrical relationship that allows one to “share the experience of discipleship.” We can speak, reflect, discuss and discern with many people, but meeting a brother who with his faith and wisdom allows us to experience being disciples of Jesus is something quite different.

It is essential for the priest to find one or more such brothers on his own path. Francis insists: “Look for him, find him and relish the joy of letting yourself be cared for, accompanied and advised.” We must allow ourselves to be cared for by those who care for the pastor.[5]

In the various stages or situations of life this brother can play different roles: paternity, counseling and accompaniment.[6] What matters is that he is someone to whom one can turn as a simple disciple, to seek in him the person of the Master, just as in confession one goes as a simple sinner, seeking the person of the Doctor and the merciful Savior. He does not need to be a “specialist”: the gift of spiritual accompaniment is aroused by the Holy Spirit together with the desire to be accompanied, and those who welcome and cultivate this desire always find a brother or sister to guide and accompany them.

Francis continues: “This is an indispensable aid to carrying out your ministry in obedience to the will of the Father (cf. Heb 10:9) and to ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5).” “Indispensable aid”: the pope’s appreciation here is not rhetorical, but sincere. He cites the Letter to the Hebrews, which speaks of the transition from a legalistic fulfillment of God’s will to one that is entirely personal. Christ, “When he had said, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), he then added, ‘See, I have come to do your will’ (Heb 10:8-9).” It is a personal fulfillment, the same to which Saint Paul invites the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).

Finally the pope reiterates the importance of being accompanied by such a brother, and quotes Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one […]. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help” (Ecc. 4:9-10).

This experience, for those who must play the role of pastor, teacher or guide, and must lead others, brings relief and is a source of rest in the Lord.

Accompaniment is not ‘a complementary aspect’

The other constitutive link – the bond with our people – is also proposed in terms of spiritual accompaniment. Francis says: “Do not withdraw from your people, your presbyterates and your communities, much less seek refuge in closed and elitist groups. Ultimately, this stifles and poisons the soul.”

First, we observe that, although these two links – with Jesus and with the people – are in a healthy and vital polar tension, the link with the Lord constitutes not only the pole, but also the foundation, the cornerstone: “Jesus himself is the model of this evangelizing option that leads us to the heart of our people.” Francis takes a contemplative pause, letting himself be pervaded by the beauty of the image of the Lord in the midst of his people, and exclaims: “How happy it makes us to see him close to everyone!”

Secondly, we note that it is not a matter of the priest, as a “minister going forth,” who walks “sometimes in front, sometimes in the middle and sometimes behind” his people, devoting time to spiritual accompaniment, as if this activity were personal and, so to speak, complementary to pastoral activity. It is not like that. The experience of knowing how to be a disciple is at the basis of the priest’s going forth to be among his people. It happens when one enters into the experience of “grazing in Christ,” as a Good Shepherd, rather than being “mercenaries.” The latter attitude can prevail not only in those who have bad intentions and want to appropriate the milk and wool of the flock, or those who are afraid of the wolf, but also in those who have a pragmatic conception of ministry and manage spaces and tasks, instead of grazing hearts.

For this reason, the foundation of spiritual accompaniment is not so much the “private” virtues or defects as the discernment of what pleases the Father and Jesus’ feelings in relation to a mission, that is to say, what the people of God need to receive at all times from those who feed them in the name of Christ. In this sense, spiritual accompaniment is the heart of pastoral care.

The pope reaffirms this, giving the second reason why the bond with the faithful people is essential: “because our people have a ‘nose’ for things. They sniff out and discover new paths to take; they have the sensus fidei” (cf. LG 12). What could be more beautiful than this?” Francis is thus suggesting that the faithful people too, guided by the Spirit, is the “brother” who accompanies the priest spiritually and helps him to “discern” God’s will in the shared journey.

This conception facilitates the search and identification of those “brothers” who spiritually accompany the priest: the faithful people of God express themselves concretely in very simple people, in whose voice, if one has this desire to be accompanied spiritually, the voice of the Spiritis heard. As Father Jorge Cullen, an old missionary, used to say, “the Spirit always speaks. But quietly. In the voice of the most humble person you meet each day.”

Finally, we note that by defining himself as “older brother and father,” Pope Francis exercises the role of spiritual accompaniment in which he places himself by writing this letter.

Experiencing being a disciple

The four points in which the pope articulates his considerations – pain, gratitude, courage and praise – can be seen as four types of experience in which the awareness of being a disciple of Jesus grows.

The pope starts from the experience of the pain of the victims, to which he joins that of the priests, referring to the “spiritual fatherhood capable of weeping with those who weep.” If it is true that, as Francis affirms, “One good way of testing our hearts as pastors is to ask how we confront suffering,” with this letter he tests his heart and our hearts as to the ability to be close to others, as the Good Samaritan was, and not as the priest and the Levite of the parable in their avoidance.

In light of this proximity, the pope makes it clear that it is a temptation to become discouraged in this painful situation that we live as Church today. Therefore he exhorts us: “Let us not grow discouraged! The Lord is purifying his Bride and converting all of us to himself. He is letting us be put to the test in order to make us realize that without him we are simply dust.” Discernment is clear: it allows us to “experience the trial” to save ourselves from hypocrisy and a spirituality of appearances. It does not mask the situation when the Church is caught in flagrant adultery.

The experience of gratitude and mercy. It is the disciple’s task to revive his vocation with a spirit of gratitude. Francis confides: “Here I think of a great master of the priestly life in my own country, Father Lucio Gera. Speaking to a group of priests at a turbulent time in Latin America, he told them: ‘Always, but especially in times of trial, we need to return to those luminous moments when we experienced the Lord’s call to devote our lives to his service.’ I myself like to call this ‘the Deuteronomic memory of our vocation’; it makes each of us go back ‘to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey. From that flame, I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters. That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good and gentle joy.’”

Gratitude, affirms Francis, is “always a powerful weapon,” capable of overcoming the barriers of formalisms and putting us in contact with what is most vital. Being grateful makes us return to experience the “glowing point” in which grace touched us, rekindling from those embers the joy of vocation. This is a joy “which sorrow and distress cannot dismay,” says the pope, discreetly linking the two experiences, that of the call and that of pain for sin. Here Francis enters the storm of the present tribulation and, quoting his recent book Letters of Tribulation,[7] he invites us not only not to lose our grateful memory, but also “to find the strength to persevere and, with the Psalmist, to raise our own song of praise, ‘for his mercy endures forever’ (Psalm 135).”

Through this Psalm, which combines gratitude with mercy, the pope outlines a profile of the priest based on “gratitude” and, indicating the things for which we can give thanks, awakens the desire to practice it better. Gratitude for one’s vocation, because it did not sour the wine of joy; for the priestly fraternity; for the witness of perseverance and endurance; for the daily celebration of the Eucharist and shepherding the faithful in confession without rigorism and without laxity; for the proclamation of the Gospel; for compassion as good Samaritans. Then he invites us to join him in giving thanks for the holiness of God’s faithful people.

The experience of renewing priestly courage is made in prayer, through sincere, and humble recognition of one’s own limitations and the suffering involved. The lack of prayer “prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth.”

The pope continues: “In prayer, we experience the blessed ‘insecurity’ which reminds us that we are disciples in need of the Lord’s help, and which frees us from the promethean tendency of ‘those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules.’” For this reason the pope composes his own psalm and invites everyone to compose their own. He articulates it in 11 invocations that support and base all gratitude and courage on the simplest of reasons: “For eternal is his mercy.”

The prayerful experience of divine mercy in us allows us to communicate consolation to others not as mere “intellectual theories or moral axioms about the way things ought to be, but as men who in the midst of pain have been transformed and transfigured by the Lord and, like Job, can exclaim: ‘I knew you then only by hearsay, but now I have seen you with my own eyes’ (Job 42:5). Without this foundational experience, all our efforts will only lead to frustration and disillusionment.”

And on the contrary: “In our own lives, we have seen how ‘with Jesus Christ joy is constantly born anew’ (Evangelii Gaudium [EG], n. 1) Although there are different stages in this experience, we know that, despite our frailties and sins, ‘with a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, God makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew’  (EG 3).”

The pope roots the experience of praise in Mary, who in her person represents the universal Church and every particular member of the faithful. In her we experience what it means to be a disciple. And a sign of the good disciple is to learn to use time well. The pope speaks of “gaining time,” looking at Mary and letting her look at us, asking for “a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart.”

* * *

Francis’ letter to priests is simple and essential. It feels familiar, as do all his letters to the people of God. The pope wants to encourage us. He does so as an older brother and father, just as the risen Jesus does, who, as Saint Ignatius says, is concerned to “console his friends.”

Francis is – and always has been – a person capable of encouraging. He can do so with realism and faith in Jesus. He knows how to discern where the desolation lurks, the discouragement and the sweet sadness of acedia. But he also knows where the burning embers are, the ones that can revive the grace received by the laying on of hands.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica and Diego Fares SJ.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 02 art. 7, 0220: 10.32009/22072446.0220.7

[1].    Francis, Letter to priests on the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the death of the holy Curé d’Ars, August 4, 2019.

[2].    Francis here quotes the encyclical Sacerdotii nostri primordia of St. John XXIII (August 1, 1959).

[3].    Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1534.

[4].    The pope writes in his letter: “As you know, we are firmly committed to carrying out the reforms needed to encourage from the outset a culture of pastoral care, so that the culture of abuse will have no room to develop, much less continue.”

[5].    Cf. A. Rossi – D. Fares, Cuidar al pastor, Buenos Aires, Agape Libros, 2016.

[6].    Cf. D. Fares, Aperti alle sfide, Milan, Àncora, 2019.

[7].    Cf. J. M. Bergoglio – Francesco, Lettere delle tribolazione, Milan, Àncora, 2019.


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