VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has warned that priests can become "little monsters" if they aren't trained properly as seminarians, saying their time studying must be used to mold their hearts as well as their minds.
Francis also warned against accepting men for the priesthood who may have been implicated in sexual abuse or other problems, saying the protection of the Catholic faithful is most important.
The pontiff made the comments Nov. 29 during a closed-door meeting of 120 superiors of religious orders who gathered at the Vatican for their regular assembly. On Friday, the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica provided a report of the three-hour, informal question and answer session. The Vatican never provided a transcript of the meeting.
The magazine, which interviewed Francis last year, quoted the first Jesuit pope as telling the superiors he wants them to "wake up the world" with their work, particularly with the poor.
"Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas," he said.
Francis, who headed the Jesuits' novice training program in his native Argentina in the 1970s, also warned the superiors of some of the failings of seminary training, or "formation," such as when would-be priests merely "grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes, follow the rules smiling a lot, just waiting for the day when they are told 'Good, you have finished formation."
"This is hypocrisy that is the result of clericalism, which is one of the worst evils," Francis was quoted as saying, returning to the issue of clericalism — or a certain cronyism and careerism among the men of the cloth — that he has frequently criticized.
The training of priests, he said, must be a "work of art, not a police action."
"We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps," he was quoted as saying.
Francis has spoken on several occasions about life in religious orders — the good and the bad — and hasn't shied from offering his own personal experiences when speaking with groups of nuns and priests. The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio was only 36 when he was made superior of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973, during a particularly turbulent time for the order in general and Argentina in particular.
In his remarks to the superiors, Francis flagged as a risk the "huge problem" of accepting into the seminary someone who has already been asked to leave another religious institute, and cited Pope Benedict XVI's tough line on priests who commit sexual abuse.
"I am not speaking about people who recognize that they are sinners: we are all sinners, but we are all not corrupt," Francis said. "Sinners are accepted, but not people who are corrupt."
The Civilta Cattolica report didn't elaborate on Francis' comments, or on how "huge" a problem this was. The priestly sexual abuse scandal has mostly concerned abusive priests who were transferred from parish to parish, not problem seminarians who were kicked out of one institute only to be picked up again by another.
He told the superiors that conflicts within religious communities are inevitable but that problems between religious orders and bishops in dioceses where orders operate must be worked out. Francis tasked the Vatican's department for religious congregations to revise a document on the relationship between religious communities and dioceses.
The interview was released on the same day that Francis celebrated Mass with some 350 of his Jesuit colleagues at the main Jesuit church in Rome to celebrate his recent decree naming the order's first recruit, Pierre Favre, a saint. During his homily, Francis told his fellow Jesuits to use mercy, not morality, when they preach.
"The temptation, that maybe many of us experience, and many other people have comes to mind; that of linking the proclamation of the Gospel with inquisitorial beatings of condemnation. No, the Gospel is preached gently, fraternally, with love," he said.
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