The best candidates are 'pastors who are close to their people', Pontiff says

Nuncios should beware of clerics who actively “seek the episcopacy” when they are looking for candidates for vacant sees, Pope Francis said today.

Addressing 108 papal representatives to nations and international organisations, along with 40 retired nuncios, who were making a two-day Year of Faith pilgrimage to the Vatican, the Pope said future bishops must be “pastors who are close to their people, fathers and brothers, who are meek, patient and merciful”.

A good prospective bishop will “love interior poverty as freedom for the Lord” and live that externally with a simple lifestyle, and he won’t have the “mindset of a prince”, the Pope said.

The papal representatives are scheduled to dine under the stars this evening with Pope Francis in the Vatican gardens.

The majority of the Vatican diplomats are nuncios or apostolic delegates to one or more country. Pope Francis said one of the most important tasks they have is studying the needs of vacant dioceses and helping him find appropriate candidates for the ministry.

“It’s a delicate task,” the Pope said. “Beware of those who are ambitious, who seek the episcopacy.”

Pope Francis said the best priest to choose as bishop or the best bishop to choose to head a larger diocese or archdiocese is one who is wed to his diocese, “the spouse of one Church, who is not constantly seeking another”.

“I will comment [more] about this when it’s not being recorded,” the Pope told the nuncios, who laughed.

Candidates must be real pastors and shepherds, he said, able to watch over their flock, keep them united, protect them from danger and, especially, nourish their hope, “sustaining with love and patience the plans that God is working within his people.”

“Shepherds need to be in front of their flocks to indicate the path, in the midst of the flock to keep them united, behind the flock to make sure none is left behind,” the Pope said.

Telling the nuncios and representatives that he wrote his speech himself after much thought and prayer, Pope Francis said he knows their ministries mean they often are nomads. “I’ve often thought, ‘these poor men'”, they not only leave their homelands, but serve for a few years in one country, then are moved to another.

The one thing they must never leave behind, he said, is their faith in Jesus and their love for the Church.

“There is always the danger, including for churchmen, to give into what – borrowing an expression from [the late Jesuit cardinal] De Lubac – I call ‘spiritual worldliness’: giving into the spirit of the world which leads to acting for one’s self-realisation and not for the glory of God,” he said.

If a nuncio is not always drawing on the strength of the Lord and not always focused on Christ and his Gospel, “he risks turning a holy mission into something ridiculous,” the Pope said. “I know ‘ridiculous’ is a strong word, but it’s true. Giving into the spirit of the world makes pastors, especially, ridiculous. We might gain some applause, but those same people who appear to approve of us will criticise us behind our backs.”

Even though they don’t have a parish or a diocese, nuncios and other Vatican diplomats are called to be pastors, the Pope said. “Always seek the good, the good of all, the good of the Church and each person.”

But along with prayer and works of charity, nuncios must work with a high level of diplomatic professionalism. “This is kind of like your hairshirt, your penance,” he said.

As a gift, Pope Francis gave each of the nuncios a commemorative silver pectoral cross made for the occasion.