by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Earlier this year, Pope Francis gave a talk to the priests of Rome during which he reminisced about a priest whom he knew in Buenos Aires.
This priest had been the provincial of his religious community and also had been a university professor, but he was most well known as a confessor. Pope Francis related that many of the priests of Buenos Aires went to this priest for confession.
The priest died in his mid 90s, just before the Easter Vigil. The body of the priest lay in state in the crypt of one of the churches where he had served. The future Holy Father went to pay
his respects and discovered there was not a single flower adorning the area around his casket.
Pope Francis said: “I thought, but this man, who forgave the sins of all the clergy of Buenos Aires, including mine, not even a flower. I went up and went to a florist — because in Buenos Aires there are flower shops at the crossroads, on the streets, where there are people — and I bought flowers, roses . . . and I returned and began to decorate the coffin with flowers.
“And I looked at the rosary in his hands. . . . And immediately it came to mind — the thief that we all have inside of us, don’t we? — And while I was arranging the flowers, I took the cross off the rosa- ry, and with a little effort, I detached it. At that moment I looked at him and said: ‘Give me half of your mercy.’ I felt something powerful that gave me the courage to do this and say this prayer!
“I put the cross here, in my pocket. But the pope’s shirts don’t have pockets, but I always carry it with me in a little cloth bag, and that cross has been with me from that moment until today. And when an uncharitable thought against someone comes to mind, my hand always touches it here, always. And I feel the grace! I feel its benefit. What good the example of a merciful priest does, of a priest who draws close to wounds.”
What a beautiful illustration of the impact of the ministry of one priest! Tomorrow (May 24), I will ordain three new priests for the Archdiocese. During the month of May, I will have had the rare opportunity to ordain a bishop, three priests, and five deacons.
In my ordination homily for the deacons, I reminded them that in accepting the call to holy orders, they were placing themselves on the front lines of the great spiritual battle between heaven and hell. I said: “Realize that in making these promises today, in making this commitment to servant leader- ship, you have made yourself the target of the evil one. While the church rejoices at the faith and love that are the foundation of the promises you are about to make, hell and its residents are agitated, provoked, and upset.
“Your ordination today places a huge target on your back. You are on the devil’s hit list! His strategy, since the very beginning, has been to strike the shepherds and the sheep will scatter.” I re- minded those to be ordained deacons: “Ordination does not remove all of your own weaknesses and disordered inclinations. The enemy — the devil — knows well these vulnerabilities and will do everything to exploit them.”
I thank God for our newly ordained deacons and priests. We need brave men who are not afraid to place themselves on the front line of the battlefield for souls. While it is a bit scary when you realize you are on the devil’s hit list, it is also very comforting to know that one more powerful than the Evil One promises to guard and protect us.
This past year, a couple of our priests needed to leave active ministry for several months in order to address some of their own weakness- es and vulnerabilities. I am very proud of these priests who faced with honesty and courage their own addictions and have now recommitted themselves to the priesthood. This has required of them to make some difficult choices and significant commitments to keep themselves healthy and holy.
At the recent ordination of priests, Pope Francis returned to the theme of the importance of mercy in the ministry of priests. He counseled those to be ordained: “For the love of Jesus Christ: Never tire of being merciful! And if you have scruples about being too forgiving, think of that holy priest about whom I have told you, who went before the tabernacle and said: ‘Lord, pardon me if I have forgiven too much, but it is you who have set me a bad example!’ The good shepherd enters through the door, and the doors of mercy are the wounds of the Lord; if you do not enter into your ministry through the Lord’s wounds, you will not be good shepherds.”
Mercy is at the heart of the priesthood. Good confessors are always first good penitents. It is the priest’s own experience of God’s mercy that guides and motivates him in trying to communicate the Lord’s mercy to others.
I ask you to pray for our newly ordained deacons and priests as well as all other priests. We need the support of your prayers to keep us safe from the devil’s deceits, to help us be effective preachers and teachers of God’s word, and dedicated ministers of his love and mercy to others.
Despite all of its challenges, our lives as priests are incredibly blessed. We are given the privilege to witness the miracles that God is constantly performing for his people. Our Archdiocese is being blessed with a good number of priestly vocations. Nevertheless, we need more. Pray that many young men may be open to a priestly vocation. Pray that they may have the courage to go to the front lines of the struggle against good and evil.
Though it can be a bit unnerving to realize that you are a priority for the devil, we rest in the confidence that Our Lord and his angels have got our back.