Pornography weakens the soul, pope tells young priests, seminarians

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After telling a funny story about receiving a cellphone decades ago that was "as big as a shoe," Pope Francis went on to encourage young priests and seminarians to use technology and social media, but to avoid pornography at all costs.

Responding Oct. 24 to questions from priests and seminarians studying in Rome, Pope Francis said he wanted to speak plainly about a danger technology has put in everyone's reach: digital pornography.

"I am not going to say, 'Raise your hand if you have had at least one experience of this,'" the pope said. But "it is a vice that so many people have, so many laymen, so many laywomen, and even priests and nuns. The devil enters from there."

Pope Francis said he was not talking only about "criminal" forms of porn like child pornography, but of "the somewhat 'normal' pornography. Dear brothers, be careful of this. The pure heart, the heart that receives Jesus every day, cannot receive this pornographic information."

According to a transcript released Oct. 26 by the Vatican press office, the pope told the priests and seminarians that if their phones and computers would allow them to block all access to porn, they should set that up, and if not, they should be on guard.

"I tell you, it weakens the soul. It weakens the soul," the pope said. "The devil enters from there: It weakens the priestly heart."

At the beginning of the audience, Pope Francis said the students had submitted 205 questions and that he would try to get to 10 of them, which he did. The questions ranged from advice about finding a spiritual director to a Ukrainian priest asking what the role of the church should be in a time of war.

"The holy mother church is a mother, a mother of all peoples," the pope responded. And the church suffers when there is war because "wars bring the destruction of her children."

The church must pray for peace, he said, and be close to and assist all those who are suffering the effects of the fighting.

And while it is difficult to see how the church can have a role in negotiating peace between Russia and Ukraine, the pope said, it does have a role to play in educating Catholics to pray for their enemies.

"You suffer so much, your people, I know, I am close," the pope told the Ukrainian priest. "But pray for the attackers, because they are victims like you. You can't see the wounds in their souls, but pray, pray that the Lord will convert them and give them the desire for peace to come. This is important."

On the question of spiritual directors, Pope Francis said they should follow the advice of St. Ignatius of Loyola and have a priest as confessor and another person as their spiritual guide.

While the sacrament of reconciliation requires a priest, he told them, their spiritual directors could be a priest, a religious woman or a layperson. "Spiritual direction is not a clerical charism, it's a baptismal charism. Priests who do spiritual direction do not have the charism because they are priests, but because they are baptized."

Another young man asked Pope Francis how the priests and seminarians studying in Rome can keep "the smell of the sheep" when they are so far from home and from their regular ministry.

"Whether you who are studying or working in the Curia or have some other commitment, it is not a good thing for your spiritual health not to have contact, priestly contact, with God's holy people," the pope responded. Without regular contact, a priest could be a good theologian or philosopher or curial official, but all of that would be only theoretical.

"It is important -- I would say necessary, in fact, mandatory -- for each of you to have a weekly pastoral experience, at least," the pope said.

Another seminarian, who mentioned trying to find "balance" between knowing he was a sinner shown mercy by God and striving to be holy, set the pope off on a speech about how it is best to leave finding balance in life to tightrope walkers in the circus.

"Life is a constant imbalance, because life is journeying and finding -- finding difficulties, finding good things that take you forward, and these unbalance you, always," the pope said. "The Christian life is a continuous walking, falling down and getting up."