I would like to begin with the concluding words of the homily that Pope Francis delivered on the 29th of March 2018, at the Mass of the Chrism: “A priest who is close to his people walks among them with the closeness and tenderness of a good shepherd; in shepherding them, he goes at times before them, at times remains in their midst and at other times walks behind them. Not only do people greatly appreciate such a priest; even more, they feel that there is something special about him: something they only feel in the presence of Jesus. That is why discerning our closeness to them is not simply one more thing to do. In it, we either make Jesus present in the life of humanity or let him remain on the level of ideas, letters on a page, incarnate at most in some good habit gradually becoming routine.”
The Holy Father illuminated several passages of the Liturgy of the Word during that Eucharistic Celebration, which suggest the topic of “closeness”: that of God to his people, that of Jesus who is anointed to preach a message of hope and therefore of closeness, and finally, that of the priest. What seems to fall under this vision of closeness, although the expression does not recur in the homily, is really human formation.
In fact, please note that this concerns not only kind behaviour or a means of communicating, but of “an attitude that involves the whole person, his way of building relationships, of being himself and attentive to the other contemporaneously.” This attitude—without a doubt—belongs only to one who is humanly mature, to the person who has grown within himself those human virtues that make him capable of authentic and peaceful relationships, of emotional and affective stability.
As you know, this topic is not new. In the journey of these last decades, especially beginning with Pastores dabo vobis, human formation has become a crucial question. The centrality of Jesus the Good Shepherd as the fundamental image by which priestly configuration is inspired, the rediscovery of closeness as a “key to evangelization” is, unfortunately, also one of the unpleasant events that, in this context, regarding seminarians and priests, has put a spotlight on this important dimension of life and spirituality in a totally new way.
While having at heart the gradualness of personal journeys toward the priesthood, and also the paths and instruments of accompaniment, today more than ever we must be courageous and determined in affirming that the Church needs Priests who are fully men and profoundly human. Only a mature and peaceful man is able to exercise the gift of the priesthood in a fruitful way.