Pope meets senior priests, encourages dialogue with young clergy

ROME (CNS) -- Pope Francis, who was ordained to the priesthood 54 years ago, encouraged senior priests in the Diocese of Rome to be "witnesses of memory," sharing their faith and experiences with younger clergy and not being afraid to argue with them from time to time.

The pope met May 14 with some 70 priests who have been ordained 40 years or more. Among them was Father Antonio Ciamei, a 94-year-old priest ordained 70 years ago.

After meeting pastors and chaplains in five regions of his diocese, the Diocese of Rome, for closed-door question-and-answer sessions from September to early May, the pope chose the most experienced clergy for the first of three meetings with priests grouped according to years of ministry.

Unlike the regional meetings, the pope's visit to the Basilica of St. Joseph in the Trionfale neighborhood just north of the Vatican was announced in advance by the diocese. Hundreds of people gathered outside the church or went to their windows and balconies to greet the pope.

The Vatican press office said Pope Francis spent about two hours in dialogue with the priests, discussing the ministry of hearing confessions and the essential role of parishes and of what Italians call "street priests," those who minister mainly outside of parishes.

"Some of the difficulties of older priests also emerged," the press office said, including "loneliness after years of living among the people" and "the struggle of coping with change."

Auxiliary Bishop Baldo Reina, vice regent of the diocese, told Vatican News the core of the pope's message was "to value these elderly priests who are not a burden or people to be forgotten but the roots of a great tree that is the Diocese of Rome."

The diocese said Pope Francis would meet May 29 with priests ordained 10 years or less. He will have a separate meeting with clergy ordained 11-39 years ago, but the date for that encounter was not announced.

After his meeting with the senior priests, the pope went into the basilica to greet about 200 children -- just over half from the parish school and the rest from the parish catechism program, including youngsters who recently made their first Communion.