Regrettably Pope Francis' "off-the-cuff" remarks convey ideas that are not too terribly helpful. I cannot divine what he really intended, and perhaps that is irrelevant anyway.
In an address to Italian priests yesterday to start off Lent, he elaborated on what he believes the priesthood should be in order to meet the needs of people. One remark he made caused me to raise my eyebrows: "Ascetic priests do not help the Church."
Really? That's quite a blanket statement. Right away, St. John Vianney, also known as the Cure of Ars, comes to mind. The fastings and sleep deprivations he undertook would cause many of today's soft and flabby generation to faint and cower. Yet people came from all over France so that he could hear their confessions. When he first arrived in Ars, the place was quite the moral cesspool. Within a few years, many conversions there turned that place around dramatically. Many of the people who came to Ars experienced dramatic conversions (he could read hearts).
Even other priests came to him. Often they would tell him that they were troubled about the lack of fruit in their own priestly ministries. He challenged them to increase their own penances and fastings if they wanted to see greater fruitfulness in their priesthoods. It bears mentioning that the Cure of Ars is regarded as the patron saint of parish priests.
He did make one statement that "mercy involves not being too rigid nor too lax". But right afterwards he lit right back into those deemed "rigid"; nowhere did I see any admonishment towards those priests who do go easy on themselves. Curious. What's not said is just as important as what is said, considering context.
My Lenten suggestion of a few days ago stands. And I pray that we all have a blessed Lent.
UPDATE - A Facebook friend alerted me to this article from Father Zuhlsdorf, shedding some additional light on the Holy Father's remarks. Please read it.