L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO PHOTO
Cardinal Wuerl greets Pope Francis on June 1 during a plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.
L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO PHOTO Cardinal Wuerl greets Pope Francis on June 1 during a plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

Speaking at a recent plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said Pope Francis offers a vision for priests and their ministry, as shepherds who accompany people where they are and help them encounter Jesus.

Noting that Pope Francis approaches his teaching ministry as a pastor of souls, the cardinal said this can be seen in the major themes of his pontificiate, “the emphasis on going out to others to accompany them in their life’s journey, and being in close proximity to them.”

The cardinal said the Holy Father emphasizes the need for people to find the doors of the Church and of God’s mercy always open to them, “but more than that, we should not wait for people to come to us where we are, but like the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep, we need to be going out to encounter people where they are, in the circumstances of their lives and situations.”

Cardinal Wuerl said to understand Pope Francis’s vision, “we and individual priests must view our priestly ministry through the lens of the New Evangelization,” the call to share the Gospel amid the challenges and opportunities of today’s world.

The cardinal’s May 31 talk on “The Priest as the Shepherd who Encounters and Welcomes, According to the Vision of Pope Francis,” came during a three-day plenary assembly of the cardinals and bishops serving in the congregation, along with staff and consultors. The main topic for the gathering was a discussion of the new Ratio Fundamentalis, a document that will set forth guidelines for programs of priestly formation that bishops’ conferences around the world will adapt to the circumstances of their local churches. Pope Francis addressed the plenary on June 1, where he offered words of encouragement for young priests beginning their ministry.

In his talk, Cardinal Wuerl noted that Pope Francis’s vision offers five essential characteristics for priests: having a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus; devotion to sacramental ministry; proximity to their flock; offering a ministry of mercy; and living lives of service and humility.

The cardinal said the phrases that Pope Francis often uses, like “journey, go out, accompany, invite, welcome, embrace (and) culture of encounter” reflect the pilgrim journey of the Church, leading people to Jesus and heaven. But he added that path “sometimes must take us into those places of darkness and the desert of hunger and thirst, of indifference and abandonment, of spiritual poverty where God has been forgotten. We must go to these places to lead the people there out of the desert.”

Noting that Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to be missionary disciples and go out to the peripheries to help people encounter Jesus, Cardinal Wuerl quoted the pope’s statement in his first general audience from Holy Week 2013, “Following Jesus means learning to come out of ourselves… in order to go to meet others, to go towards the outskirts of existence, to be the first to take a step toward our brothers and our sisters, especially those who are the most distant, those who are forgotten, those who are most in need of understanding, comfort and help.”

That same Holy Week, the new Pope Francis encouraged priests to “be shepherds, living with the smell of the sheep... as shepherds among your flock.”

Cardinal Wuerl said that as shepherds, priests are configured to and must remain close to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and must stay close to their flocks.

“To take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ means to be out amongst the flock entrusted to the priest, personally close to them,” he said. “It means not simply being available in the office or celebrating the sacraments – as central and primary to the priesthood as that is – but being engaged in the lives of parishioners and others in the community.”

The cardinal said Pope Francis has underscored the importance of walking with people, and guiding them on the path to Christ. “The priest cannot shepherd the flock from afar, he must be there with people in their journey,” Washington’s archbishop said. “He must walk with them, side-by-side.”

In the context of today’s world, that means priests must reach out to people experiencing brokenness, just as Jesus touched and brought healing and God’s love and mercy to people in need, said Cardinal Wuerl. “The priest today will encounter many people who live in dysfunctional or broken families, those who have divorced, people who are unemployed and who try to survive in material poverty, people who are on the move seeking refuge and a better life, people who are sick and dying, and many who are suffering from spiritual wounds.”

Cardinal Wuerl said obstacles like secularism, materialism and individualism have formed a surging tsunami that has washed over today’s culture, “taking with it so many of the foundational elements such as appreciation of marriage, family, basic right and wrong, and a sense of community.”

Added to that have been societal trends to “bleach out recognition and appreciation of God and the importance of religious faith,” said the cardinal, adding that those attempts to bleach out God from public and private life have left many people struggling to find truth and meaning. In that context, Pope Francis has underscored the need for all members of the Church to carry out the work of the New Evangelization.

“The challenge for priests as shepherds, and for all the faithful as missionary disciples, is to provide people with a fresh awareness and familiarity with the true Jesus – who is Love and Truth,” the cardinal said.

Through his words in documents like Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and through his personal witness, Pope Francis is demonstrating the need to bring the love of Jesus to people where they are, Cardinal Wuerl said. “He is also calling us priests to do the same.”

Reflecting on Pope Francis’s vision for the essential characteristics of priests, Cardinal Wuerl said, “First, the priest must have a vibrant, personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, which begins with that initial vocational call, is transformed in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and then deepens and grows in grace and in the daily life of the priest.”

Pope Francis has emphasized that the priesthood is a ministry, not a job, the cardinal said.

“As priests, we can do many great things, we can provide many important services in aid of many people, but if we leave Jesus out of the process, then we do people a grave disservice.  Any governmental organization, any secular worker in social service can provide charitable care to the poor and others – and it is good that they do so – but as good as that is, it leaves out something essential.  It leaves out true hope, sustenance and salvation that is found only in the Lord,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Reflecting on the importance of priests having a daily relationship with Christ, the cardinal said that transforms a priest’s heart, so he can “see, feel and love as Jesus sees, feels and loves,” and then become the face of Jesus to those he serves.

Cardinal Wuerl also noted how Pope Francis has highlighted the importance of a devotion to sacramental ministry for priests. “The spirituality of the priest is riveted to his sacramental ministry,” the cardinal said.

“Never is a priest more the presence of Jesus – the icon of Christ – than in the administration of the sacraments,” Cardinal Wuerl added, noting how the life of a priest is graced by celebrating Masses, funerals, weddings, baptisms, anointing the sick and hearing Confessions. “In each of those graced moments, Christ is present and acting.”

The cardinal said the spirituality of a priest is nourished by a vibrant prayer life and a fruitful sacramental ministry, which will “foster ongoing priestly formation and spiritual growth, which in turn, will bear fruit in the priest’s pastoral ministry.”

Proximity to the flock is also vital for the priest, Cardinal Wuerl said, noting that Pope Francis has encouraged priests to be a living embodiment of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who “gathers and cares for his flock and is willing to go out and search for the missing, the lost and to carry them on his shoulders.”

That shepherding involves accompaniment, sometimes reaching out “those who are not yet a part of the flock, proclaiming the Good News to them and inviting them to join that fold,” said the cardinal.

Cardinal Wuerl noted how Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) encouraged priests to offer pastoral outreach and accompaniment to those who are wounded or living in “irregular situations,” reaching out to them not with condemnation but with Jesus’s love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, sharing the teaching of the Church with them in welcoming language and helping them discern their situation and assist them in the formation of conscience, “so they can journey in the right direction on the pilgrim path.”

“If we take as our inspiration the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd with the lost sheep around his shoulders, we can begin to recognize what Pope Francis is telling us,” the cardinal said.

Pope Francis sees mercy as another key characteristic of the priesthood, said Cardinal Wuerl.

“The priestly ministry must be a ministry of mercy,” he said.

At last year’s Chrism Mass, Pope Francis said, “As priests, we are witnesses to and ministers of the ever-increasing abundance of the Father’s mercy,” and by sharing God’s love and mercy, priests can “help to inculcate mercy, so that each person can embrace it and experience it personally. This will help all people truly understand and practice mercy with creativity, in ways that respect their local cultures and families.”

Cardinal Wuerl added, “Mercy builds bridges and establishes bonds. This attitude must be seen in contrast to moralism and legalism, which create barriers and push people away.”

Pope Francis sees another key characteristic of the priesthood as living a life of service and humility, the cardinal said, noting how Jesus washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper.

“Every aspect of the life of the priest must reflect the deep meaning of his vocation, which is to serve with love,” said Cardinal Wuerl, noting how at his ordination, each priest is prostrate before the altar as a sign that he is “laying down his life for Christ, his Church and his people.”

Concluding his talk, Cardinal Wuerl said Pope Francis’s vision for the priesthood offers a template for renewal, as priests join the faithful in carrying out the call of the New Evangelization as missionary disciples in today’s world, helping people encounter, love and follow Jesus.

“In this work, it falls to each priest to be the face of Christ and his mercy, to be an embodiment of the Good Shepherd, a perennial reflection of divine love to many faithful who already know, live and manifest the kingdom of God, but also to a world facing so many questions, dilemmas and challenges that ultimately find answers only in God,” Cardinal Wuerl said.