Pope Francis's impromptu sermons prompt serious questions

Some Catholics seem to deplore what they see as Pope Francis’s garrulousness, when he gives his impromptu homilies as St Martha’s House, his residence in Rome. I see it as all part of his characteristic “style”, differently certainly from his predecessor, the Pope Emeritus, but no less orthodox in teaching, if more homely, accessible and direct.

Vatican Insider reports his homily of January 11 2014 under the headline “Francis: Priests must not be wheeler dealers or tycoons.” No, indeed they shouldn’t be – we would all agree on that. So what does the Pope say? “Only if priests base their lives on Christ can they fully respond to their vocation and avoid becoming “priest-wheeler dealers”, “priest-tycoons”, “butterfly-priests, always vain, that is.” The Pope emphasised that “We are anointed by the Spirit, and when a priest is far from Jesus Christ, he can lose this unction…And instead of being anointed, he ends up being smarmy. And how damaging to the Church are smarmy priests! Those who put their strength in artificial things…”

I think this is the first time a Pope has used the word “smarmy” (as it has been translated into English). We know what it means: oily, unctuous, ingratiating. Perhaps we have met priests of this sort. The word reminds us that in his long journey to Rome Pope Francis must have encountered them too, as he constantly sought to orientate his own life more closely to Christ. Although they can seem colloquial and extempore, these homilies are always the result of thought, prayer, wisdom and experience.

And as with all his homilies in one way or another, the Pope brings the subject back to Christ, and the need for humility, commenting, “We priests have so many limits. We are sinners, all. But if we go to Jesus Christ, if we seek the Lord in prayer – prayer of intercession, prayer of adoration – we are good priests, even though we are sinners. But if we are far from Jesus Christ, we necessarily compensate for this with other, worldly attitudes…” He added that if Jesus is not at the centre of the priestly life “we lose everything. And what will we give to the people?”

Every priest must ask himself this question, as must every bishop. In the case of the latter, they have already been admonished by the Holy Father, in his words and by his example, not to separate themselves from their people by their way of living. The Pope concluded his homily with the exhortation, “Even if you lose everything in life, don’t lose this relationship with Jesus Christ! This is your victory.”

This reminded me that some bishops (and priests) live in parts of the world where they have very little to start with, so have little to lose. Such is the case in the diocese of Riobamba, Ecuador, where the bishop, Monsignor Julio Parrilla, ministers to some of the poorest people on earth, the Puruha Indians of the high Andes. This Christmas I was sent details of his mission by a friend who helps to finance the Chambo seminary in Riobamba, which was started in 1996.

An earlier bishop of the region, Mgr Leonardo Proano, long before the personal austerity of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, later Pope Francis, became well known, had left his palace in the city to live among the Puruha people. He wrote, “To give your life with love is the greatest proof of friendship. It is to live and die in solidarity with Christ”. Now Bishop Parrilla has copied the example of his predecessor and lives among the Indians, not at a large residence next to his cathedral. His small seminary so far has produced 16 priests. They share the simple lives of their people and have attracted more young men who want to join them on the long road to the priesthood. There is nothing “smarmy” about these priests or their bishop. Perhaps the hardship and simplicity of their lives helps to keep them close to Christ, the source of their vocation?

If any reader would like to become a “friend of Chambo Seminary” and help to support its work, they should get in touch with Elisabeth Wareham, 15, Park Gate, Mount Avenue, London W5 1PX, or at: warhame@btinternet.com