On March 19, at the end of the meeting of the Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Pope Francis wrote a letter – which has been divulged by Vatican Radio this morning – to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
“You cannot conceive of a pastor without the flock he is called to serve. The pastor is the pastor of a people, and you serve a people from the inside. Many times, you go on leading the way, other times you backtrack, so no one gets left behind, and not seldom you stay among people so as to feel their heartbeat well,” the Pope wrote. In fact: “A father does not conceive of himself without his children. He may be a very good worker, professional, husband, and friend, but what makes him be a father has a face: his children. The same happens to us, shepherds.”
The pastor has the smell of his sheep on him, the Holy Father repeated many times. Only in this way, living in the midst of the flock of God, he does not run the risk of falling into useless and sterile speculation, which “ends up killing” good and salvific “action”.
We are all baptized and no one is born an “elected” priest, bishop, or cardinal. “No one has been baptized as a priest or a bishop. We have been baptized as lay people and no one will ever erase this indelible mark. It will be good for us to remember that the Church is not an elite of priests, consecrated people, and bishops, but that all together we are the Holy faithful people of God.” We are all part of the same people of God.
In Latin America – Pope Bergoglio goes on – “popular ministry” has been free from the dangers of clericalism. “It was one of the few areas where the people (including its pastors) and the Holy Spirit managed to meet without the clericalism that seeks to control and curb God’s anointing on its people.” As it was already written by Paolo VI, in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii nuntiandi” (n. 48), “if it is well oriented, above all by a pedagogy of evangelization, it is rich in values. It manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of manifesting belief. It involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. It engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion. By reason of these aspects, we readily call it “popular piety,” that is, religion of the people, rather than religiosity.”
So, what does it mean for a pastor to live in the midst of his flock today? “At present, many of our cities have become real places of survival. Places where the culture of waste, which leaves little room for hope, seems to have settled. There we find our brothers, immersed in these struggles, with their families, who are not only trying to survive, but who, amidst contradictions and injustices, are seeking the Lord and want to bear witness to Him. What does it mean for us, shepherds, that lay people are working in public life? It means looking for ways to encourage, accompany, and cheer all the attempts and efforts that are already made today in order to keep hope and faith alive in a world full of contradictions, especially for the poorest, especially with the poorest. It means, in quality of pastors, that we have to work hard among our people and with our people, to support faith and hope. Opening doors, working with it, dreaming with it, thinking and above all praying with it.”
Priests are not “superior” to lay persons; on the contrary, in some cases, the latter can be masters of fraternity, solidarity, and bearers of desire of kindness, charity, and justice. “It is not up to the pastor to tell the lay person what to do and say, (s)he knows it much better than we do. It is not up to the pastor to determine what the faithful have to say in different fields,” the Pope writes. Then he adds: “Without realizing it, we have created a secular elite in the conviction that only lay people involved in “priestly” things are committed lay people. We have forgotten and disregarded believers, who often burn their hope in the daily struggle to live by faith. These are the situations clericalism cannot see, because it is busier dominating spaces than generating” processes.
Hence, the invitation to the shepherds is the following: “We must be on the side of our people, accompanying it in its quest and stimulating a kind of imagination, which is able to react to the current problem. All this must happen discerning with our people and never for our people or without our people. St. Ignatius would say ‘according to the needs of the places, times, and people'”.
Inculturation, evangelization of culture, and the spreading of Jesus Christ’s “good news” in the world “is a craft, not a factory for the production in series of processes that would engage in fabricating Christian worlds or spaces.” In this context, “our role, our joy, the joy of the shepherd, consists in helping and encouraging, as many others before us, mothers, grandmothers and fathers, the real protagonists of the story. Not due to our good will, but for its own law and Statute. Lay people are part of the Holy People of God; hence, they are protagonists of the Church and of the world; we are called to serve them, not to be served by them.”