Pope Francis thanked sick and elderly priests for their quiet witness to the Gospel Thursday in a message that conveyed the sanctifying value of frailty and suffering.
“It is especially to you, dear confreres, who experience old age or the bitter hour of illness, that I feel the need to say thank you. Thank you for the testimony of faithful love of God and the Church. Thank you for the silent proclamation of the Gospel of life,” Pope Francis wrote in a message published Sept. 17.
“For our priestly life, frailty can be ‘like a refiner’s fire or a fuller’s lye’ (Malachi 3:2) which, raising us towards God, refines and sanctifies us. We are not afraid of suffering: the Lord carries the cross with us!” the pope said.
His words were addressed to a gathering of elderly and sick clergy Sept. 17 at a Marian shrine in Lombardy, the Italian region hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
In his message, Pope Francis recalled that during the most difficult period of the pandemic -- “full of a deafening silence and a desolate emptiness” -- many people raised their gaze to heaven.
“In the past few months, we've all experienced restrictions. The days, spent in a limited space, seemed interminable and always the same. We missed the dearest affections and friends. The fear of contagion reminded us of our precariousness,” he said.
“Basically, we have experienced what some of you, as well as many other elderly people, experience every day,” the pope added.
The elderly priests and their bishops met at the Santa Maria del Fonte Sanctuary in Caravaggio, a small town in the province of Bergamo where the number of deaths was six times higher in March 2020 than in the previous year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the Diocese of Bergamo at least 25 diocesan priests died after contracting COVID-19 this year.
The gathering to honor the elderly is an annual event organized by the Lombardy bishops’ conference. It is now in its sixth year, but this fall it takes on an additional significance in light of heightened suffering experienced in this region of northern Italy, where thousands died amid an eight-week ban on funerals and other liturgical celebrations.
Pope Francis, who is 83 years old himself, said that the experience of this year had been a reminder “not to waste the time that is given to us” and of the beauty of personal encounters.
“Dear brothers, I entrust each of you to the Virgin Mary. To her, Mother of priests, I remember in prayer the many priests who died of this virus and how many are going through the recovery process. I send you my blessing from the heart. And, please, do not forget to pray for me,” he said.