Pope Francis emphasized that priests must be joyful, stubborn shepherds who take risks and seek out even those who are most distant from God, in imitation of the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ.
“A shepherd after the heart of God has a heart sufficiently free to set aside his own concerns. He does not live by calculating his gains or how long he has worked: he is not an accountant of the Spirit, but a Good Samaritan who seeks out those in need,” the Pope said in a June 3 homily.
“For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all he has.”
“In seeking, he finds, and he finds because he takes risks. He does not stop when disappointed and he does not yield to weariness. Indeed, he is stubborn in doing good, anointed with the divine obstinacy that loses sight of no one,” the Pope continued. “Not only does he keep his doors open, but he also goes to seek out those who no longer wish to enter them.”
Pope Francis’ homily was part of a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Square at the conclusion of a three-day Jubilee of Mercy. Several thousand priests and seminarians took part in the jubilee, which offered them chances for prayer and reflection, Eucharistic Adoration, confession and pilgrimages to designated jubilee churches in Rome.
The Friday Mass fell on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which prompted the Pope to reflect on the heart of priests and the heart of Jesus Christ.
In the Heart of the Good Shepherd, he said, “the Father’s love shines forth.”
“There I know I am welcomed and understood as I am; there, with all my sins and limitations, I know the certainty that I am chosen and loved.”
In contemplating the heart of Jesus, he said, “I renew my first love: the memory of that time when the Lord touched my soul and called me to follow him, the memory of the joy of having cast the nets of our life upon the sea of his word.”
“The Heart of the Good Shepherd tells us that his love is limitless. It is never exhausted and it never gives up. There we see his infinite and boundless self-giving. There we find the source of that faithful and meek love which sets free and makes others free,” Pope Francis added.
This heart also reaches out to those who are most distant.
For the pontiff, the fundamental question of priestly life is “Where is my heart directed?” He noted the plans, projects and activities of a priest’s life, including catechesis, liturgy, works of charity, and pastoral and administrative commitments.
He said that Jesus’ heart had two great riches: God the Father and his people. This should this be the focus of priests’ hearts.
“The heart of the priest is a heart pierced by the love of the Lord,” the Pope declared. “For this reason, he no longer looks to himself, but is turned towards God and his brothers and sisters. It is no longer ‘a fluttering heart,’ allured by momentary whims, shunning disagreements and seeking petty satisfactions. Rather, it is a heart rooted firmly in the Lord, warmed by the Holy Spirit, open and available to our brothers and sisters.”
He encouraged priests to seek out people, to include them, and to rejoice.
God seeks out his sheep without fear of risks, and does not put off the search until he has found the lost sheep. A good shepherd’s heart is not jealous of its legitimate time alone and never demands that it be left alone. A good shepherd is not worried about protecting his comfort zone or his name, but takes risks in trying to imitate his Lord, the Pope explained.
“Christ loves and knows his sheep. He gives his life for them, and no one is a stranger to him,” the Pope said. “His flock is his family and his life. He is not a boss to be feared by his flock, but a shepherd who walks alongside them and calls them by name.”
This is also true for the priest, who is anointed to be close to the men and women God has entrusted him with.
“No one is excluded from his heart, his prayers or his smile,” the Pope said of the ideal Catholic priest. “With a father’s loving gaze and heart, he welcomes and includes everyone, and if at times he has to correct, it is to draw people closer. He stands apart from no one, but is always ready to dirty his hands.”
The priest does not wait for complements but reaches out to others and rejects gossip, judgments and malice. He generously sows God’s forgiveness.
“He does not scold those who wander off or lose their way, but is always ready to bring them back and to resolve difficulties and disagreements,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis also reflected on the joy of God.
“His joy is born of forgiveness, of life risen and renewed, of prodigal children who breathe once more the sweet air of home. The joy of Jesus the Good Shepherd is not a joy for himself alone, but a joy for others and with others, the true joy of love. This is also the joy of the priest.”
The priest is changed by the mercy he freely gives. In prayer he discovers God’s consolation and powerful love, experiences inner peace, and becomes a channel of mercy to bring men and women closer to the heart of God.
In celebrating the Eucharist each day, priests rediscover their identity as shepherds. He asked that priests may make Jesus Christ’s words their own: “This is my body, which is given up for you.”
Pope Francis thanked the priests for giving their life in union with Jesus. In this, he said, is found “the pure source of our joy.”