The Holy Father has been very good in lecturing priests and telling us what to do. We are to go out into the world and “make a mess.” We are to “smell like the sheep.” We are to welcome all with compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. We are to be good and kind pastors who administer the sacraments with care and concern. We are to seek out the poor, castigate the rich, side with the unfortunate, heal the sick, support the immigrants, and reach out to the lowly. We are to welcome the divorced and remarried, not judge those with same-sex attraction, and open the doors of the Church to all with a warmhearted and affirming form of evangelization by attraction.
This is a message I endorse and embrace. I want to be that kind of priest. I want to be Jesus to the world. I long to care for the poor and hungry, minister to their needs, welcome all to the Church as the father welcomes the prodigal. I wish to have the open heart Pope Francis has. I want to show the attractiveness of Christ, the radiant truth of the gospel, and the joy of the abundant life that Jesus brings to the world. I long to celebrate the sacraments with love, care, hope, joy, and compassion. I want to be the persona Christi, the image of God, and the face of the Father not only to my flock, but to all who I meet.
I have heard the words of my Holy Father and taken them to heart. I sincerely want to be that kind of priest.
This is teamwork, Holy Father. I can only do the job you want me to do if you do the job you have been called to do. With the greatest respect and love, please don’t feel that it is your job to tinker with the timeless truths. If my job is to be the compassionate pastor for those in the pew and beyond, then your job is to be the primary definer and defender of the faith. I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours.
Yes, I know you want to inspire us to be that kind of compassionate pastor, but to be honest, I find that inspiration elsewhere. I remember meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta and being inspired by her compassion. I am inspired by St. Damien of Molokai, St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Isaac Jogues, and a host of other valiant and radiant souls. While your example of compassion, humility, and simplicity is stunning and attractive, your most important work is to define and defend the teachings of the Catholic Church so that together we can all proclaim it and live it with the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness we all agree is necessary.
Here is an example: Twice in the past week I have had to deal with Catholics in irregular marriages. One woman married outside the Church and told me that she thought it was now okay for her to come to Communion because “the pope has changed all those old rules.” Another man has divorced his wife and is living with another woman. He also assured me very confidently that it was now fine for him to come to Communion because “Pope Francis has changed the rules.” I know you mean well, Holy Father, and I admire and like you, but this process on which you have led us is not helping.
Here is another example from my experience as a parish priest: A young couple came for marriage preparation. They do not practice their faith and are living together already as husband and wife. I welcomed them and listened to their story. I told them it was good that they wanted to be married. I said we would help prepare them not only for a Catholic wedding, but for a Catholic marriage.
However, when I gently began a conversation about their irregular lifestyle, the girl began to pout and accuse me of being “unwelcoming.” Then she said, “I thought with this new pope we would be welcomed.” What she meant by this was, “I expected Pope Francis’ Catholic Church to condone cohabitation.”
Compassion without content is mere sentimentality. Mercy without truth is an empty gesture. Kindness without correction is cowardly.
I’ll do my best to preach and live the merciful faith once delivered to the saints, but I need you to do your best as the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, and the Servant of the Servants of God to define, defend, and uphold that unchanging faith in which mercy is grounded.
The Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson.
This essay first appeared in Crisis Magazine Oct. 14. Reprinted with permission.