2013-09-16 Vatican - Pope Francis on Monday morning met for over two hours with priests from the Diocese of Rome.

The private meeting, an annual event that takes place in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, was a moment of greetings and exchange.

After the Vicar General of Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini delivered his welcoming speech, the Pope addressed the clergy and then took time to answer the many questions they put to him.

His first words to his brother priests were words of encouragement and closeness.

Speaking off the cuff to bishops, vicars, priests and deacons, Pope Francis said the Church needs “shepherds of the people, not clerics of the State”. Dipping into a letter he had written to his priests when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2008, a year after the Aparecida Conference, and that he used as a text upon which to reflect in the lead-up to this encounter, the Pope said “a priest belongs to the people of God” and he reminded priests never to lose their identity which is in communion with the Holy Spirit, because without the Holy Spirit – he said - “we are in danger of losing our way in the understanding of faith”, and run the risk of ending up disoriented and self-referenced.

And Pope Francis told his fellow bishops always to be close to the rest of the clergy, and to support them in times of difficulty and fatigue.He invited them to be both pastors and zealous missionaries who live in constant yearning to go in search of the lost, never settling for simple administration.

He called on his fellow priests never to be too lax or too severe, but to be merciful, taking care of the sinner and accompanying him on the journey of reconciliation.And he urged them never to forget that they were plucked from the flock, reminding them to always defend themselves against the “rust” of spiritual worldliness” and the “spiritual corruption which threatens the very nature of a shepherd”.

Pope Francis concluded telling his brother priests to be loving disciples of the Good Shepherd, guarding their own precious and fragile flocks with tenderness, and never forgetting that special “preferential option” for the poor.