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The priest in the time of Pope Francis. Cardinal Stella: “Welcoming and on the streets.” Vocations crisis in Europe and the cooperation of the laity

"We encourage the bishops to support vocational pastoral care, focusing on the figure of the priest. In the post-Council years we focused on the vocation to the sainthood holiness of lay Catholics, and perhaps many no longer identify with the priestly vocation", declared Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, in his profile of the priest dreamed by Francis, with a reflection on the difficulties of the ministry: "Today priests and bishops should focus their efforts and what pertains to them as ordained priests, entrusting to the laity the responsibilities and services they can perform better than them.” An appeal to the “people”, who for Francis are “the community of the baptized, and not only them”

His studio offers a stunning view of Bernini’s colonnade; the portraits of the Popes of the past centuries welcome the guests as they enter the room, retracing the memory of a Dycastery incessantly confronted with tradition and innovation. Cardinal Beniamino Stella is sitting near the image of Albino Luciani, the smiling Pope who was also the last Italian Pope to sit on the See of Peter. To him Cardinal Stella owes the academic formation that led him to hold prominent posts in Vatican diplomacy, from the Central African Republic to Chad, from Congo to Columbia, with seven years of laborious commitment as apostolic nuncio to Cuba. Former President of the Ecclesiastic Pontifical Academy, Cardinal Stella was nominated Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy by Pope Francis.

In the homily for the Jubilee for Priests, Francis recalled that “the heart of Christ’s priest knows only two directions: the Lord and his people.” Which is the priest that the Pope wishes for the Church? That priest is a shepherd with a strong spirituality, who received and bestows mercy. Those who had the profound experience of God who forgives are capable of forgiving themselves in the exercise of their ministry. A priest who lives with the People of God, who shares their joys and hopes.

A welcoming priest who lives on the street.

The Pope invites us not to abandon the street, to be near people and take part in their daily life. It’s important to share the concrete path of life of the faithful, in the liturgy and within the family alike. A priest that participates in the life experiences of his people is also deeply touched by the tragedies of life.

The term “People” recurs in Francis’ speeches. What does it refer to? To the community of the baptized, but not only to them. To society as a whole, also to those who are distant from the Church, in Italy and throughout Europe, who preserve the Christian memory of the sacraments. The majority of our faithful baptize their children and accompany them until Confirmation. In their personal experience they carry an echo that withstands the passing of time, even if they have distanced themselves from the Church throughout the years.

The Pope’s relations with non-believers are exemplary for the shepherds, who cannot forget the sheep who never entered the flock or have drifted away. We need to seek these lost sheep with human gestures, in times of sickness and of joy.

If the parish priest has intuition and sensitivity he will knock on the door of the needy. The shepherd priest doesn’t forget this large part of the population that doesn’t go to Church, but continue preserving the memories of the faith of their mothers or grandmothers. Those memories represent a concrete connection to enter their hearts.

There is a growing trend of diocesan priests in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceania. Foreign priests have been serving in Italian parishes for years. Is it a pastoral model we should grow accustomed to? The downsizing of parish environments is already under way, with the dissemination of different modes of accompaniment on behalf of the community. There are faces that don’t match our profile. But when the first missionaries arrived in Africa and Asia they didn’t have the skin colour, nor did they speak the local language or know about the local cultural traditions. Today we are called to welcome those arriving here. It would be beautiful if the people gave rise to the new pastors, but the signs of the times and the universality of the Church compel us to consider the need to integrate apostolic forces that were never born in our womb. Our common bread is the Gospel. We don’t know where this road – undertaken over a century ago – will bring us. The bishops are aware of this and they are welcoming, without keeping their doors wide open. The balance of vocations preserved at global level is a reason to reflect on the development of new forms of service, notably in Europe, whilst seeking apostolic contributions that may help us at this time of shortage and difficulties.

Will there be new forms of cooperation with the laity?

Cooperation with the laity must increase. The general complaint is that the priest has too many administrative commitments, that the bishop has to deal with matters that don’t lie within his responsibilities.

Today the priests and the bishops ought to focus their efforts on what pertains to their ordained ministry, entrusting to the laity tasks and services they can carry out better.

We have grown used to seeing the priest present in every corner of the parish. Now it’s time to dedicate ordained ministry to the pastoral service and to leave greater freedom of movement to the laity.

Is the Church worried about the crisis in vocations in the Old Continent and in the Western world? In Europe we still don’t see the end of this eclipse, while its immediate causes are yet unknown. There are broad-ranging reasons for this drop in vocations. Culture, for example, or families who fail to support vocations and in many cases hamper them. There is concern for our Europe. Many initiatives are promoted by Bishops’ Conferences.

We encourage the bishops to support the pastoral care of vocations, focusing on the figure of the priest. In the post-Council period we highlighted the importance of the vocation to sainthood of the laity, and perhaps many stopped feeling directly involved in priestly vocation.

We must invite our young people to reflect on this service to the Lord as part of ordained ministry. Next October the Congregation will propose a meeting characterised by the pontifical motto, “Miserando atque eligendo”, addressed to the Church as a whole. We hope that the event and the audience with the Pope will contribute to raising awareness on the theme of the priesthood.

What difficulties do priests experience in the ministry? The priests often have various parishes and the weekend entails a dedicated form of physical commitment, for the community of faithful expect Eucharistic celebrations, feasts of the Patron Saint, preparation for communion. Some ministry services still belong to popular piety and to the Christian cultural traditions of our faithful. The priests experience these difficulties. There is also a profound, less visible difficulty linked to the reception of the Christian message. After confirmation, young people tend to grow distant from the community. Living the Christian marriage is not easy, within a culture that has canonized many supposed liberties and whims. The priests experience such difficulties in their relationship with young people, the most demanding age bracket. These youths today have other points of references and other sanctuaries; they see the bell-tower from the entrance of the disco club. The fact that youths grow distant owing to the drawing power of society is a great source of suffering for the priest.

Young people are easily attracted by other forms of allurement, also in school, which rather than forming young people to life often contaminates them.

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