Pope Francis is concerned about priestly formation. Last week, my colleague Gerard O’Connell broke the news that the pope had ordered a review of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which oversees priests and, perhaps more importantly, seminaries in the church’s non-mission dioceses. Ordering an apostolic visitation of a Vatican office was virtually unheard of until earlier this year when the pope ordered an Italian bishop to visit the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in order to discern what the office would need out of its next prefect. Now, it seems Francis is working from the same playbook in the Congregation for Clergy.
The pope’s concerns about worship are evident: He wants to see the Second Vatican Council implemented and wants to ensure that the celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass are (1) properly understood as an exception rather than the norm, as he did in a recent guideline governing the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and (2) that Mass in this form is desired by the community rather than being imposed by a priest. (I think, if a survey of the TLM were to be done in the United States, it would find that the case is often the former.)
The latter speaks to some of Pope Francis’ concerns about priestly formation. First, as is well known, Pope Francis has seen the damage that clericalism has wrought in the church, particularly in the sexual abuse crisis, when priests’ and lay people’s belief in the superiority of the priest bolstered decades of abuse and cover up. As I wrote in a previous column for this blog, Pope Francis’ solution to clericalism is a synodal model of church, one that involves priests and lay people listening to one another and working together to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the church.
A second concern is pride, the root cause of clericalism. This pope has, from the beginning, instructed pastors to be humble, to have “the smell of the sheep.” Last week, he contrasted this with the image of a “superman priest,” telling a group of priests studying in Rome, “My fragility, the fragility of each one of us, is a theological place of encounter with the Lord. The ‘superman’ priests end up badly, all of them. The fragile priest, who knows his weaknesses and talks about them with the Lord, he will be fine.”
It was an image that created a striking contrast with last week’s news that the La Crosse, Wisconsin priest, Fr. James Altman, who became a YouTube sensation last year with his “You cannot be Catholic & a Democrat. Period. (Part I)” video, has now raised almost $700,000 in donations to help him fight his bishop’s request that he resign as pastor of his parish. While I cannot claim to know Fr. Altman’s soul or his relationship with God, it seems clear from the volume of donations that many people consider him to be a sort of superman.
As Sr. Josephine Garrett, C.S.F.N., a religious sister and licensed counselor who works with seminarians, points out in a recent interview with Gloria Purvis, seminary vetting processes often fail to account for personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, which can then run rampant when a priest gathers a large social media following.
The third concern Pope Francis has expressed, most publicly last week in a speech to seminarians, is rigidity. In the speech, Pope Francis urged the seminarians to “dilate the boundaries of the heart” while they are in seminary. “Be passionate about what approaches, what opens, what brings together. Be wary of experiences that lead to sterile intimisms, of ‘satisfying spiritualisms,’ which seem to give consolation and instead lead to closures and rigidity. And here I rest for a while: Rigidity is a bit of fashion today; and rigidity is one of the manifestations of clericalism. Clericalism is a perversion of the priesthood: it is a perversion. And stiffness is one of the manifestations. When I find a seminarian or a stiff young priest, I say ‘something bad happens to this one inside.’ Behind all rigidity there is a serious problem, because rigidity lacks humanity.”
Clericalism, pride, rigidity—the links between the three are evident, and with his recent speeches and the review of the Congregation for Clergy that he ordered, Pope Francis has made clear that he hopes to see a church in which priests are formed to be the opposite: Listening, humble and human.
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.