First Commandment of Parish Life: Closeness to People, Pope Says

We imagine it’s fairly rare for Pope Francis to address the parish council of a single parish, but he did so on Sunday evening, National Catholic Reporter reports. In his remarks, he told the group that “the key role of a Catholic parish is practicing closeness to its people by working to provide for their needs and to always show God’s love for all.” Such closeness is the “first commandment” of parish ministry, Francis continued.

Speaking to the parish council of a church on the eastern outskirts of Rome Sunday evening, Francis emphasized the difficult situations many people are living when offering advice to the council about how to go about their work.

“You have only one defect, but it’s the same one that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had,” Francis told the council. “Being poor.”

“Joseph had work; Jesus had work,” said the pope. “Many people here don’t have it. And they have to feed their children!”


Telling the parish council they should work “so that these situations do not repeat,” the pope said, “You work to continue to go ahead with the people and to tell them: ‘No, come here, what do you need? I will help you.'”

“For this, I recommend one thing, to you, to help people,” he continued. “The first pastoral commandment is closeness: being close to the people. Closeness.”

“We cannot go to a family with sick or hungry children — or those that have fallen to vice — we cannot go with ‘You must, you must, you must,'” said the pope. “No. We must go with closeness, with the caress that Jesus has taught us.”

The full story from reporter Joshua J. McElwee can be found here.

CNS Photo


  1. A point well-taken for parish ministers, both ordained and lay. When families come to us in grief to plan a funeral, or in joy to plan a wedding, we should “go with closeness.” Share their sorrow or share their joy, welcome them, and serve them.

    I hear so many stories of bad interactions with parish ministers and musicians. People come with an imperfect or incomplete understanding, and we jump straight to the rules and regulations. You cannot do this, you must do that! Show them the GIRM! Enforce the rules! Don’t give an inch! This approach is selfish, putting the efficiency and needs of the minister first, and it is not of God. We can counsel people toward the best choices and we can make exceptions to some rules for pastoral reasons without resorting to, “You must, you must, you must.”

  2. Hi, Scott! Overall, I agree with you and understand the Pope’s concerns. Ministry involves serving people, so, logically, we have to serve their needs.

    At the same time, I keep running across people who have the misconception that they can do anything of any kind at weddings and funerals, and nobody will say anything to the contrary. When someone attempts to apply the brakes, it’s the riot act because such-and-such priest at Parish X said that was perfectly OK. At some point, a minister has to be able to put his or her foot down and say, “No, I’m sorry, that’s not acceptable in this circumstance, and here’s why…I can offer this as an alternative, but we cannot do what you suggested,” and then stick to that. However, I keep hearing from colleagues that when they attempt to speak reason to chaos, they are intercepted by the priest and told, essentially, that “the customer is always right” and the minister has to do whatever is asked.

    I feel that many ministers are being left in untenable positions in their parishes by this kind of approach, after which they are then chastised from both ends of the orthodoxy spectrum.

  3. No priest should be surprised or disturbed that countless Catholics don’t approach sacramental celebrations from the starting point of what is allowed or disallowed. Nor can they blamed for thinking that this particular celebration is a very personal one to them. We should be ready to listen to the ideas they propose before jumping in with quotes for the GIRM or making references to rubrics. Here’s an example: In a discussion with a bride she begins to gush about having a “unity candle” because she thought it was so lovely in a recent wedding she attended. I respond by saying that having a candle express the unity of the couple on their wedding day is a great idea and that we do in this parish is that we take the beautiful Easter Candle and place it prominently in the sanctuary as a symbol that two people who have already been consecrated in baptism are not to receive the grace of another sacrament by which they can love and honor one another all the days of their lives. She concurs that this is a lovely idea but had in mind a special candle they could add to the ones we already use. At this point I say there will be no problem we will put that lit candle on the altar as the service begins so that they can take it home with them to be placed in a prominent spot in their home. There is no rubric that forbids this and it gives her a way of “personalizing” the wedding rite. The alternative is to give her a lecture of why we don’t have unity candles in Catholic weddings that will make her feel stupid while making the priest feel superior. We need to be close to people and avoid putting obstacles between us. It can be done without doing something that will “ruin” our sense of “correct” liturgy.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #3:

      Kudos, Father, that was an excellent idea and I will remember that wording! Your example illustrates part of what I was saying–offering an alternative that fulfills both what the couple would like to convey and what the church teaches should be the focus. I can think of many couples who would be very gratified to work with you regarding wedding planning.

      I hope your approach is more common than it seems, as I keep speaking with people who say the implicit policy is “retreat when resistance is encountered…we can’t afford to drive them away by explaining what the church really believes.” This just reinforces the concept of lay parishioner as “customer / consumer” of the church’s “commodities” rather than as a wounded soul and a student of the church’s Sacraments.

  4. Fr Jack – you should have told the bride to get married in the UK or Ireland where the unity candle is (an optional) part of the marriage rite!

  5. I dearly love Pope Francis but I think some of his metaphors leave something to be desired. He said the church should be like a “field hospital”. But who calls a field hospital “home”? A field hospital is great when you need it in a bind but if you dont need it, it’s not going to catch your attention.
    First Commandment of Parish Life– closeness to the people? There are alot of things –for good and for ill– that can get very close to the people, become endearing to them and be regarded as indispensible to their life. But they might not have the slightest interest in God or the Word Made Flesh.
    How about if the primary intent of a parish were to give authentic witness to Jesus, that there be no doubt that a parish’s first love is Jesus and faithfulness to him? What if a parish seemed tgo be able to offer the kind of peace that the world cannot give?
    Pope Francis has said that, in marriage, the lack of faith can be grounds for a declaration of nullity. But is faith really seen as a requirement for the sacrament of marriage? Or of Baptism? Or confirmation? Or….

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