A profound reply: Local priests respond to Pope Francis’ letter to all parish priests

Catholic News Agency and North Texas Catholic Staff
(May 3, 2024) Local

Pope Francis signs a letter to parish priests during a meeting with pastors from around the world who were chosen by their bishops to share their reflections with the Synod of Bishops on synodality May 2, 2024, in the Synod Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis' Letter to Parish Priests

VATICAN — Pope Francis published a letter on Thursday addressed to all parish priests in the world with his advice for building a missionary Church in which all the baptized share in the mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

“Before all else, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for the generous work that you do each day, sowing seeds of the Gospel in every kind of soil,” Pope Francis wrote.

“It is so obvious as to sound almost banal, but that does not make it less true: the Church could not go on without your dedication and your pastoral service,” he added.

In their reflections on the Pope’s letter, two local priests, Father Jack McKone, pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish in North Richland Hills, and Father Samuel Maul, pastoral administrator of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington, emphasized the need for a priest to stay close to Christ and His people.

Father Jack McKone, pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish in North Richland Hills. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Fr. McKone responded to Pope Francis’ statement on the essential nature of the priesthood, saying, “The Church’s life centers around the sacraments, and obviously the parish priest is needed as a minister of those sacraments, an Alter Christus. But beyond that, he is occupied with being ‘fatherly’ in the everyday scenes of family life. Assisting a couple as they prepare for marriage. Comforting a person who has lost a beloved spouse. Offering spiritual counseling to a parishioner in crisis. And sharing the parish family joys, sorrows, failures, and successes.

“Early in his papacy, Pope Francis spoke of the shepherd smelling like the sheep. That comes from living with them, becoming a part of the parish community, and not from merely being a property manager,” Fr. McKone, who was ordained in 2008, continued.


The role of the priest

The parish priest is “at the center of the community, as its nucleus,” said Fr. Maul. “Just as people flocked to the Lord around Galilee during his public ministry, people still flock to Him today at their local parishes, hoping to catch a glimpse of Christ in action. When they come, they should find Him present in all members of the local community, living lives of service for one another and the poorest among them, teaching the words of Christ handing on to them, and offering legitimate worship to God.

“This priest, most especially the pastor, who by means of ordination and configuration to Christ Himself, supplies the community with the sacramental fuel and apostolic instruction necessary to be true disciples.”

Fr. Maul pointed out that the priest, while at the center of the community, is not the focus. “The role of the priest is not to supplant Christ in this ministry, but rather to be a medium by which Christ manifests His community around Himself. The priest should not congregate the community for his own sake, but rather point the way to the Redeemer.

“Christ's ministry was always to establish the Kingdom of God where each and every person of creation would be able to find who they were created to be, a child in the image and likeness of God, and may, by this fact, rejoice in Him,” explained Fr. Maul.

In the letter published on May 2, Pope Francis wrote, “Parish communities increasingly need to become places from which the baptized set out as missionary disciples and to which they return, full of joy, in order to share the wonders worked by the Lord through their witness.”

The pope presented the letter to 300 priests participating in the Synod on Synodality’s “World Meeting of Parish Priests” during an audience at the Vatican, saying that their meeting is “an opportunity to remember in my prayers all of the parish priests in the world to whom I address these words with great affection.”


Three suggestions

In the letter, Pope Francis offered three suggestions to parish priests for building “a synodal and missionary Church.”

The first is for priests to live out their “specific ministerial charism in ever greater service to the varied gifts that the Spirit sows in the people of God.”

He said that by nurturing the many and varied charismatic gifts of the laity, priests will “feel less alone in the demanding task of evangelization” and “will experience the joy of being true fathers, who do not dominate others but rather bring out in them, men and women alike, great and precious possibilities.”

Father Samuel Maul, pastoral administrator of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Fr. Maul expounded, “The Holy Father highlights the line in Presbyterorum Ordinis that the parish priest should ‘discover with faith, the many and varied charismatic gifts of the laity, be they of a humble or more exalted form.’ The good priest does not order the community to be formed to his own likeness, but rather to that of Christ's who by sending down His Spirit upon all the disciples at Pentecost, Apostle or not, lifts them up to be agents within the kingdom.

“When the parish priest accomplishes this, the entire community begins to flourish in the Spirit and the kingdom in God does not only become present by sentiment, but in reality.”

However, Fr. Maul continued, “Without the priest to do this, the community simply forms around an idea of Jesus that gets muddied by their own intentions, wants, and observations. The priest stands to serve as a real person, who although himself a sinner, serves the all-important role of simply being an actual person, not just the idea of one.

“This role is so important because just as people were confronted by the real words and actions of Christ in order to bring about their conversion, so too must there be real words and actions done by the priest. The priest must take on this responsibility with courage and faith, and above all prudence. Just like the words we say at Mass or proclaim from the Gospel, the ministerial actions we employ are not our own.”

The Pope’s second suggestion for the priests is to “learn to practice the art of communal discernment” by using the “conversation in the Spirit” practiced during last October’s Synod on Synodality assembly.

Lastly, Pope Francis encouraged priests to base everything they do “in a spirit of sharing and fraternity” both among themselves and with their bishops.

“We cannot be authentic fathers unless we are first sons and brothers. And we cannot foster communion and participation in the communities entrusted to our care unless, before all else, we live out those realities among ourselves,” the pope explained.

The audience with the pope concluded the four-day World Meeting of Parish Priests, which took place from April 29 to May 2 at the Fraterna Domus retreat house in Sacrofano, Italy, just north of Rome.

The gathering of 300 priests was jointly organized by the Dicastery for the Clergy and by the General Secretariat of the Synod in response to the first synod assembly’s synthesis report, which identified a need to “develop ways for a more active involvement of deacons, priests, and bishops in the synodal process during the coming year.”

Father Clinton Ressler, a priest from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, was one of five American priests who traveled to Rome for the meeting.

Ressler told EWTN that a highlight from the meeting was “the experience of being together with brother priests from around the world.”

He said that he has learned that despite the diverse realities in which priests in different parts of the world find themselves, “the experience of being a priest on the front lines and in the trenches is kind of a universal experience — the joy, the sorrow, the hope.”


By Courtney Mares, Catholic News Agency

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated by NTC staff.

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