Pope to Bangladeshi priests, religious: don't have a 'vinegar face'

by Elise Harris

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Pope Francis listens to testimonies during a meeting with priests, religious and seminarians in Dhaka, Bangladesh Dec. 2, 2017. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano.

In a classic off-the-cuff speech to priests and religious in Bangladesh, Pope Francis said it's sad to see unhappy consecrated people, but he loves looking into the eyes of elderly religious who have spent their lives serving in joy, which is the essence of their vocation.

In his Dec. 2 meeting with the priests and religious, the Pope told them to “have joy of heart,” and said he always feels great affection when he meets elderly priests, bishops, and nuns who have “lived a full life.”

“Their eyes are indescribable, full of joy and peace,” he said, noting that God still watches over those who haven't lived this way, “but there is that lack of sparkle in their eyes. They haven't had that joy.”

He said the spirit of joy is essential to consecrated life, and that “you cannot serve God” without it.

“I can assure you it's very painful when you meet priests, consecrated, bishops, who are really unhappy, with a sad face,” he said, adding that whenever he comes across someone like this, he wants to ask: “what did you have for breakfast today, vinegar?”

These people have “a vinegar face, a soured face,” he said, explaining that the “anxiousness and bitterness of heart” that comes when we focus on promotions or compare ourselves to others is counterproductive, and “there is no joy in that way of thinking.”

Pope Francis spoke to Bangladesh's consecrated community on the last day of his Nov. 27-Dec. 2 tour of Asia, which included stops in both Burma, and the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.

He arrived to Dhaka Nov. 30, and has so far met with the country's civil authorities, ordained 16 priests, spoke to the bishops and led an interreligious encounter where he met with Hindu, Buddhist, Anglican and Muslim leaders, including members of Burma's persecuted Rohingya minority. Before leaving, he'll also meet with the nation's youth, as the last encounter before returning to Rome.

In his meeting with religious, which was held at the Church of the Holy Rosary, one of the oldest churches in Bangladesh, the Pope listened to several testimonies before speaking, including Fr. Abel Rozario, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dhaka; Brother Lawrence; Fr. Franco; Sister Mary Chandra; and Marcellius, a seminarian.

After hearing their stories, Francis said he had prepared an 8-page speech for them, but tossed the remarks, jesting that “we come to listen to the Pope, and not to get bored!”

Speaking off-the-cuff in Spanish with his interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, offering simultaneous translation into English, the Pope said that as he was coming in, the image of a plant “sprouting from the stump of Jesse” in next Tuesday's reading from Isaiah came to mind.

The image of the plant growing in a spirit of wisdom and piety and blooming in a life of faith and service also applies to the life of a consecrated person, he said, noting that it all begins with a seed.

“The seed does not belong to you or to me, God sows the seed, and God is the one who provides for its growth,” he said, explaining that while God is the one who takes the initiative, we have to water the seed in order for it to grow.

In order to water the seed of the vocation we've been given, we have to “look after it,” as we would look after a child or someone who is sick or elderly: with tenderness.

“Vocation is looked after with human tenderness in our communities, where we live as priests, parishes,” he said, adding that “if there's no such tenderness, then the plant is very small, it doesn't grow and it can dry out.”

“Look after it with tenderness, because every brother in the presbyterate, in the episcopal conference, every religious in community, every brother seminarian, is a seed of God. And God looks at them with the tenderness of a father.”

However, Francis also noted that despite our best efforts, the enemy comes at night and plants weeds along with the good seeds that God has sown.

When these weeds come along, “there is the risk that the seed can be threatened and not grow,” he said,  saying it is “awful” and “sad” to see these weeds grow within parishes or episcopal conferences.  

In order to prevent the growth of the weeds, we need to know how to tell them apart from the good seeds, the Pope said, explaining that this process is called “discernment.”

“To look after means to discern,” he said, and urged them to pay attention to which direction their “plant” is growing in, and whether there is something – a friend or a community or family member – who is threatening the growth of the plant.

Prayer is also a key part of this discernment process, he said, adding that “to look after also means to pray, and to ask the one who planted the seed how to water that same seed.”

“If I'm having a crisis and falling asleep, we have to ask him to look after us. To pray means to ask the Lord to look after us, that he give us the tenderness that we have to then pass onto others,” he said.

Pope Francis then pointed to the various challenges that arise in parishes, seminaries, episcopal conferences and convents, saying these will always be present because each of us have defects and limitations that threaten the peace and harmony of community life.

Noting how Bangladesh is known for it's achievements in living and promoting interreligious harmony, he said the same efforts have to be made inside faith communities, and Bangladesh “has to be an example of harmony.”

Bringing up a point he often returns to, especially when speaking to religious, Francis said of the greatest “enemies” of harmony in religious life is gossip.

“The tongue, brothers and sisters, can destroy a community by speaking badly about another person,” he said, noting that “this is not my idea, but 2,000 years ago a certain St. James said that in his letter.”

To talk about the defects of others behind their backs rather than confronting the person about it creates an environment of distrust, jealousy and division, he said, and again referred to gossip as a form of “terrorism.”

It's terrorism, he said, because “when you speak badly of others, you don't say it publicly, and a terrorist doesn't say publicly 'I'm a terrorist.' A terrorist says it in a private, crude way, then throws the bomb and it explodes.”

The same thing happens in communities, and often times others pick up the bomb that has been left and they also throw it, he said, and told the religious to “hold your tongue” if they are tempted to speak badly about someone.

“Maybe you'll hurt you tongue if you bite it, but you won't hurt the other person.”

If a true correction needs to be made, Francis told them, if possible, to first confront the person face to face in charity, and to also let an authority know, so they can do something about it if needed.

“Say it to the person's face, and say it to another person who can do something, but with charity. How many communities have been destroyed through the spirit of gossip,” he said, and implored them “please, hold your tongue, bite your tongue.”

Pope Francis closed his address by urging the religious to ask themselves a series of questions: “do I look after the small plant, do I water it? Do I water it in others? Am I afraid of being a terrorist, and therefore never speak badly of others? And do I have the gift of joy?”

He then voiced his hope that the “plant” of their vocation continues to grow so that “your eyes will always sparkle with that joy of the Holy Spirit,” and asked for prayer.

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