The pope’s problem – today’s seminarians and young priests


He’s warned Catholic seminaries against the tendency to turn future priests into “little monsters”.

He’s scolded the Church’s presbyters for wearing ornate liturgical vestments that stem from a bygone era, telling them to stop dressing up in “granny’s lace”.

And he’s called it a “scandal” to see young priests and seminarians going into the ecclesiastical tailor shops of Rome and “trying on cassocks and hats, or lacey albs”.

This is all part of Pope Francis venting his aversion to clericalism. He has denounced it over and over again in his eleven years as Bishop of Rome, identifying it as a “scourge” and “plague” that wounds the Church and its members.

Railing against clericalism has been a mantra throughout his entire pontificate.

“The holy, faithful People of God go forward patiently and humbly, enduring the scorn, mistreatment and marginalisation of institutionalised clericalism,” he said last October during the Synod assembly on synodality.

“How naturally we speak of the princes of the Church, or of episcopal promotions as getting ahead career-wise!” Indeed.

Institutionalised clericalism

The pope is right to point out that clericalism is ingrained in the very institution of the Church.

It is a deeply-rooted mentality and ethos that is, without a doubt, most often identified in ecclesiastical ambition, certain forms of dress, and the language clerics and even many lay people tend to use.

But these are only symptoms, perhaps, of a much deeper and more fundamental problem.

It is this: the idea, drilled into the heads of seminarians and priests over the centuries, that they are special.

They are chosen ones. They are men “set apart”, as some of the classic Catholic literature and manuals define those men who feel they have a vocation to the “holy priesthood”.

That is a problem. And Francis puts his finger on it, showing that it all begins in the formation (training) period before a man is even ordained.

“Priestly formation should not be conceived as somehow ‘set apart’,” he said recently while addressing participants of the Vatican-sponsored International Conference for Ongoing Formation of Priests.

“Rather, it should draw upon the contribution of the people of God: priests and lay faithful, men and women, celibates and married couples, the elderly and the young, without neglecting the poor and suffering who have so much to teach us.”

The audience included about a thousand priests from 60 countries that, according to Vatican News, attended the February 6-10 gathering.

This is not the sort of thing today’s seminarians and younger clergy, who are told by so many people that they are “set apart”, like to hear.

Scientific surveys (at least in the United States) and anecdotal evidence (from there and other parts of the world) suggest that these younger clerics and future clerics are more traditional in their views of Church and society than men who were ordained before 1980 and even those before as recently as twenty-five years ago, fully in the John Paul II era.

Tender, forgiving, and “generative”

Pope Francis has been trying to find a way to rid the Church of clericalism. And he believes the recipe is synodality, the notion that all we are all walking together, priests and people.

“We can carry out our priestly ministry well only if we are fully part of the priestly people, from which we ourselves have come,” he told the priests at the recent conference on ongoing formation.

“Realising that we are part of a people – never feeling separated from the journey of the holy, faithful People of God – preserves us, sustains us in our efforts, accompanies us in our pastoral concerns and keeps us safe from the risk of growing detached from reality and feeling all-powerful.”

He warned that such detachment is “the root of every form of abuse”.

The 87-year-old pope said a priest who sees himself as a man set apart from the rest of the People of God is “an aristocrat who ends up becoming neurotic”.

The real “identity card” of a priest, he said, is to offer “generative” service.

“When we put ourselves at the service of others, when we become fathers and mothers for those entrusted to our care, bring God’s life to birth.

This is the secret of a ‘generative’ pastoral activity,” he told the priests. And he had that this means being merciful and tender, especially when hearing people’s confessions.

“They come to ask for forgiveness and not to hear a lecture on theology. Please be merciful. Always forgive,” he insisted.

“Tenderness is strength,” the pope added.

Stop judging

Pope Francis’ insistence on not judging others and being welcoming of “everyone” is another aspect of his pontificate that greatly disturbs many of those priests who are more traditional and tend to be unwavering enforcers of Church doctrine without nuance.

The younger clergy and seminarians, by and large, tend to be in this category (which also included many bishops appointed in the previous two pontificates).

Rather than apologists or proselytisers, Francis says Catholics – all the baptised, whether ordained ministers or not – are called to be “missionary disciples” of Jesus.

“Christ’s missionary disciples have always had a heartfelt concern for all persons, whatever their social or even moral status.”

The pope made the comment in his message for next October’s “World Mission Day”, which was published on February 2.

“The parable of the banquet tells us that, at the king’s orders, the servants gathered ‘all whom they found, both good and bad’ (Mt 22:10)….

“The wedding feast of his Son that God has prepared remains always open to all, since his love for each of us is immense and unconditional,” he added.

Not even one’s “moral status” can keep a person from entering the heavenly banquet, much less so doors of a Catholic Church!

This is, in fact, the logic behind the controversial document the pope approved for offering blessings to couples in “irregular situations” including individuals who are divorced and civilly remarried and those who form a same-sex couple.

The reactions against this, especially among the seminarians and young clergy, was to be expected.

The next couple of generations of Catholics

The pope’s clericalist critics have called him “demoralising and bullying”.

They are incensed that he – the Church’s supreme lawgiver – would even dare to say, “Who am I to judge?”

It is, in their minds, a gross dereliction of his duty at Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth.

Judging is actually the Supreme Pontiff’s job, they say! But, to them, Francis is too “progressive”, aligned with the agenda of the political “left”.

Those who actually restrain themselves from going off the ecclesial reservation and stop short of calling him a heretic, clearly see his views and teachings as “heterodox” and undermining the Catholic faith.

They, on the other hand, pride themselves for their own “orthodoxy, their ars celebrandi, their preaching, and their pastoral zeal,” to quote a traditionalist priest from the United States.

It’s not clear where the People of God – “the merely baptised” – stand on all of this.

Even lay people can harbour clericalist attitudes.

Part of that is institutionalised, as the pope has pointed out.

But it is a problem that the younger ranks of the ministerial workforce and those who are currently preparing to join it are not very fond of this pope.

They are the ones who will be “the servants” or “the aristocrats” of the next couple of generations of Catholics.

And that means, if the man who succeeds the current pope one day is more tolerant of and sympathetic to their traditionalist mentality and proclivities, the reforming vision of Francis will end up…

You fill in the blank.

  • First published in La Croix International. Republished with permission.
  • Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of La Croix International.
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