In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican News, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy, Cardinal-elect Lazarus You Heung-sik, praises the heroism of many priests worldwide, and notes that evils and abuse can be combatted with mature, holy priests who offer credible witness.
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
There are many heroic priests all over the world, says future Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-Sik, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy.
In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican News at his Dicastery on the occasion of his appointment as Cardinal, the Prefect observes: “There are many beautiful priestly stories to tell, not just the ugly and unpleasant ones, which unfortunately are not lacking.”
During the broad conversation, he speaks candidly about the priesthood, vocations, formation in seminaries, and the Church in Asia.
For the future Korean Cardinal, clericalism in the Church is fought with priests who are “fathers” and also “sons and brothers” of their communities. If the Church trains priests who are humanly, spiritually and intellectually mature, he says, “then we will finally hear less about abuse and other well-known evils.”
Calling the priesthood a gift from God, the South Korean Vatican Prefect, smiling, urges priests to be joyful, and to transmit this, and similarly says “the whole People of God must prayerfully invoke the gift of new priests.”
Q: Cardinal-elect Lazarus, what were you doing when you learned that the Pope had named you a Cardinal? What was your reaction?
I was in Zagreb for a pastoral engagement and that Sunday I was in the company of a friend, visiting a Marian shrine, when at some point my cell phone rang. Since that shrine is at very high altitude, the reception was not the best. On the phone was a friend saying, “The Pope has appointed you….” “Who has he appointed?” I replied.
Basically, he was the one who told me that my name was on the list of those new Cardinals. I remember it was about 20 minutes after the recitation of the Regina Caeli at St. Peter’s. So, I turned off my phone, we prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, we prayed the Holy Rosary, and I asked Our Lady for her help in responding well to this new call to serve the Church, the Pope and priests.
Then I turned the phone back on and I was bombarded with phone calls and messages and I said to myself, I am not worthy, but if the Holy Father has appointed me, then being a Cardinal will mean for me to love the Church even more, to serve the Pope better, to be an instrument of God’s grace for all the priests, deacons and seminarians in the world.
Q: Cardinals are the Pope’s closest advisers. How do you think you will live out this role?
I have never thought of advising the Holy Father. Instead, I have always found communion with the Pope very beautiful. For my part, instead of advising, I rather try to listen to the Holy Father in order to understand well what he expects from my service, starting with some fundamental questions: What priests does the Church need today? How do we choose them? How do we form them? I see in this regard a very clear answer, ever since, at the beginning of the Pontificate, the Pope gave us the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium.
The important thing is to live the Word of God. We generally say that those who live the Word are Christians, and those who do not live it cannot call themselves Christians. [What is important is] to live the Word together as the Holy Father advocates in the Encyclical Fratelli tutti, that is, to be brothers and sisters in an evangelical atmosphere of mutual love.
Today we read in the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium that evangelization is done first of all through witness: the witness of charity, of brotherly love. Priests therefore should be the first to put into practice the spirit of Praedicate Evangelium, living, with the communities entrusted to them, the reality of a synodal Church.
Q: The Curia reform described in Praedicate Evangelium has been in effect precisely since Sunday, June 5, the Solemnity of Pentecost. What effect does it have on your daily reality?
Pope Francis, as soon as he was elected, established the “Council of Cardinals,” convening them periodically, the last meeting I think was the 41st. But the work of that Council concerned in some way the whole Church, with a view precisely to the new Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which is precisely not the work of anyone alone. Many in fact have studied, prayed, dialogued, trying to find the “way” for the Church in our time.
Personally, I feel that my task is to live well the spirit of Praedicate Evangelium, so that the Church becomes, thanks to everyone’s commitment, more and more what God wants, and also appears more and more credible in the eyes of the world. And a synodal Church is the testimony of Her most beautiful face.
Q: You are Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy, which deals with priests and deacons. Pope Francis often condemns clericalism. In your opinion, what are specifically the behaviors and habits that the Pope wants to combat? And how can they be combated?
The priest presides over the community, celebrates for it and with it, the Most Holy Eucharist; he is the father and leader of the community. Jesus also instituted the priesthood for service to the community; therefore, without community, there can be no ministerial priesthood. But the priest is also a child of the community, a companion of the community, in the sense that he walks together with it, eating the same Bread.
So, when the role of the priest-father is absolutized, that is where clericalism can come from. When, on the other hand, a good priest is, yes, a father, but he also feels in his heart that he is a son and a brother, then he will love the community with his whole self, devote himself to it full-time, and not waste time chasing personal aspirations and ambitions. The important thing is to live this Trinitarian life together with the community.
Q: Are you concerned about the decline in vocations to the priesthood in many parts of the world?
Yes, I am very concerned about it. In almost every country, vocations are declining. Yet many young people want to imitate the good examples, which are not lacking.
It is therefore a matter of offering them good examples, that is, credible testimonies, of those who live the Gospel integrally and thus know how to show that God is love and that being with Him represents our only good, the only true happiness of the human heart.
Q: From this point of view, how can the formative experience of the seminary help?
The seminary is not a factory where priests are produced, but rather a place where Jesus’ disciples live and there slowly become apostles of Him.
Therefore, in the seminary, one must first of all live the Word, both on a personal level and in community life. Indeed, it is important that we live community life well even in seminaries with small numbers. If celibacy also means renouncing a human family in order to form a larger one, however, this awareness must be born and developed in the hearts of candidates for the priesthood already in the early years of formation.
Q: You come from South Korea. On your continent, Asia, many Churches are witnessing a blossoming of vocations to the priesthood. What do you think they could teach those where the vocation crisis is being felt most?
Korea’s Christian history is a history of martyrs, and many of them received the faith as a gift through the witness of lay believers. Then, in more recent times, it is true that vocations to the priesthood have increased, but they are currently declining there as well, although the Church remains very committed to promoting and accompanying vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, both male and female.
I personally see vocations in Korea as a gift that God has given us and continues to give us through our martyrs. Therefore, we have to go back to the example of the martyrs, and this I think can also apply to other countries.
Q: In your capacity as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy, what challenges do you see as most urgent today for priests and their ministry? And how can they be addressed?
The priesthood is a great gift from God. Often the media bombard listeners with news about priests that is not always good…. Yet I see that there are so many heroic, good priests: parish priests, missionaries serving God’s people, especially those marginalized by society.
Then it is important and proper to encourage priests, so that they may be joyful: never with a long face but with a smile on their lips, capable of expressing even in their faces the beauty of the gift received. There are many beautiful priestly stories to tell, not only the ugly and unpleasant ones, which unfortunately are not lacking.
Q: Pope Francis has made many efforts for the Church to regain and deserve her reputation as a credible and trustworthy institution, committed to safeguarding and protecting minors from abuse. How does your Dicastery partake in and take into account these efforts?
I feel enormous pain in hearing about acts committed by priests against minors, such as pedophilia and abuse in general. I believe that if we succeed in forming priests who are humanly, spiritually and intellectually mature, they will not use sexuality for pure pleasure; they will not abuse minors. On the contrary, they will respect and help them, as indeed the vast majority of priests have done and do.
So, the question is [how] to form solid and mature priests, and then – I am sure – we will finally hear less about abuse and other well-known evils.
Q: Let’s go back to the boom in vocations to the priesthood that the Churches in Asia and Africa are witnessing….
Each continent experiences its own situation, but it is impossible to think of a Church without priests.
Therefore, the whole People of God must prayerfully invoke the gift of new priests. This is my hope. And I am sure that the Lord will soon give us this grace and show us the way.
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