As pastors we must extend great, great mercy!…
Where was Jesus most often, where could he most easily be found? On the road. He might have seemed to be homeless, because he was always on the road. Jesus’ life was on the road. He especially invites us to grasp the depths of his heart, what he feels for the crowds, for the people he encounters: that interior attitude of “compassion”; seeing the crowds, he felt compassion for them. For he saw the people were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. We have heard these words so many times that perhaps they do not strike us powerfully. But they are powerful! A little like the many people whom you meet today on the streets of your own neighbourhoods…. Then the horizon broadens, and we see that these towns and villages are not only Rome and Italy; they are the world … and those helpless crowds are the peoples of many nations who are suffering through even more difficult situations….
In the Church, everything is the time of mercy…. Let us ask ourselves what mercy means for a priest, allow me to say for us priests. For us, for all of us! Priests are moved to compassion before the sheep, like Jesus, when he saw the people harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus has the “bowels” of God, Isaiah speaks about it very much: he is full of tenderness for the people, especially for those who are excluded, that is, for sinners, for the sick who no one takes care of….
Thus, in the image of the Good Shepherd, the priest is a man of mercy and compassion, close to his people and a servant to all. This is a pastoral criterion I would like to emphasize strongly: closeness. Closeness and service, but closeness, nearness!… Whoever is wounded in life, in whatever way, can find in him attention and a sympathetic ear….
The priest reveals a heart especially in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation; he reveals it by his whole attitude, by the manner in which he welcomes, listens, counsels and absolves…. But this comes from how he experiences the Sacrament firsthand, from how he allows himself to be embraced by God the Father in Confession and remains in this embrace…. If one experiences this in one’s own regard, in his own heart, he can also give it to others in his ministry….
The priest is called to learn this, to have a heart that is moved. Priests who are — allow me to say the word — “aseptic”, those “from the laboratory”, all clean and tidy, do not help the Church. Today we can think of the Church as a “field hospital”. Excuse me but I repeat it, because this is how I see it, how I feel it is: a “field hospital”. Wounds need to be treated, so many wounds! So many wounds! There are so many people who are wounded by material problems, by scandals, also in the Church…. People wounded by the world’s illusions…. We priests must be there, close to these people.
Mercy first means treating the wounds…. And there are also hidden wounds, because there are people who distance themselves in order to avoid showing their wounds closer…. The custom comes to mind, in the Mosaic Law, of the lepers in Jesus’ time, who were always kept at a distance in order not to spread the contagion…. There are people who distance themselves through shame, through shame, so as not to let their wounds be seen…. And perhaps they distance themselves with some bitterness against the Church, but deep down inside there is a wound…. They want a caress! And you, dear brothers — I ask you — do you know the wounds of your parishioners? Do you perceive them? Are you close to them? It’s the only question….