Front Row With Francis: An Alphabet for Clerics


Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the GospelIn the realm of effective written communication, it is essential to first master the basics of grammar before attempting to compose a persuasive essay. Perhaps the first official school lesson most children learn is to recite the alphabet. From there years are spent memorizing and putting into practice the rules of good grammar. Without this solid foundation, few, if any, will progress to become competent writers.

Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the ministry of Bishops, priests and deacons at this week’s Wednesday audience with a list of the “alphabet, the basic grammar” needed by these men to be effective ministers. Drawing on St. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he said:

“Now, it is emblematic how, together with the gifts inherent in the faith and in the spiritual life, that can’t be overlooked in that very life, some exquisitely human qualities are listed: hospitality, sobriety, patience, meekness, reliability and goodness of heart.”

These human qualities, the Pope stressed, should be the “basic grammar of every Bishop, of every priest and of every deacon!” The Holy Father warned that without a mastery of this grammar, “it is not possible to offer a truly joyous and reliable service and witness. “

Why is a proficiency in this grammar so necessary for Bishops, Priests and Deacons to be effective? The scriptures are full of the reasons why these virtuous behaviors are so essential for giving credible witness and why an absence of these virtues can have the disastrous effect of leading people away from God. St. Paul exhorts the young Timothy that through his living out of these human qualities, not only will he advance in the spiritual life, but his followers will as well:

“Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers and example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith , in purity….Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to you teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.“ (1 Tim 4: 12; 15-16)

Conversely, St. Paul warns Timothy of the ill effects of negative behaviors, in particular that of sin through careless speech:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handing the word of truth. Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness.” (2Tim 2:15)

Good grammar, however, does not stand on its own. It is an ingredient, a tool that is a necessary part of a larger whole – the well-written essay. An essay written without good grammar is unintelligible – and the reader will quickly dismiss it, no matter how profound its message claims to be. A meaningful essay built on the solid foundation of good grammar becomes a powerful source of influence and transformation to the reader.

Saint John Paul II, in his book Gift and Mystery, written on the occasion of his 50th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood, raises the “basic grammar” Pope Francis demands of the ordained to the level of the well-formed essay in the following statement (emphasis his):

“While the Second Vatican Council speaks of the universal call to holiness, in the case of the priest we must speak of a special call to holiness. Christ needs holy priests! Today’s world demands holy priests! Only a holy priest can become, in an increasingly secularized world, a resounding witness to Christ and his Gospel. And only thus can a priest become a guide for men and women and a teacher of holiness. People, especially the young, are looking for such guides. A priest can be a guide and teacher only to the extent that he becomes an authentic witness.”

When we encounter in our Bishops, priests, and deacons the degree of holiness which St. John Paul II describes, it is a compelling witness – leading us, the faithful to desire to know the “reason for their hope.” (1 Pet 3:15) They become for the faithful a model and an inspiration of a life fully surrendered to Christ. Their lived out witness of holiness, even in the smallest of human activities, leads the lay faithful into a deeper relationship with Christ and generates in them a striving for holiness in their own state in life. The influence of a holy priest cannot be over-estimated. His life will bear fruit in the souls of the people he meets in time and eternity.

As lay Catholics, let us take to heart the words of Pope Francis as he concluded the audience:

“Dear friends, always be grateful to the Lord, because in the person and ministry of Bishops, priests and deacons He continues to guide and to form His Church, making her grow along the way of holiness. At the same time, we must continue to pray, so that the Pastors of our communities can be a living image of communion and love of God. “


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