Pope Francis calls for visiting Diocesan priests to be “holy, holy priests”

Six Diocese of Venice priests were among a group of nearly 100 who participated in the annual National Association of Hispanic Priests in the United States convention in Rome in mid-November 2023.

Leading the Diocesan contingent was Father Jiobani Batista, Pastor of Our Lady Queen of Heaven Parish and Holy Martyrs Mission, both in LaBelle, who became the new president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests (Asociación Nacional de Sacerdotes Hispanos). Also participating were Father Lorenzo Gonzalez, Pastor of St. Columbkille Parish in Fort Myers, who was elected treasurer of the organization, as well as Father Marcial García, Pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Moore Haven, and St. Theresa of the Child of Jesus Mission in Buckhead Ridge, Father Elbano Muñoz, Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Bradenton, Father Felix Gonzalez, Parochial Vicar at St. James Parish and Santiago Mission, both in Lake Placid, and Father Luis Albarracin who is retired but continues to assist at Parishes throughout the Diocese.

One of the highlights of the association convention was an audience with Pope Francis on Nov. 16, 2023, in Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Place in Vatican City.

Pope Francis told the group, the daily rhythm of the life of a priest should resemble “ping pong” – praying on one’s knees before the tabernacle, helping those in need and returning to prayer.

“Do not leave those who suffer alone; do not leave the Lord in the tabernacle alone. Convince yourselves that you cannot do anything with your hands unless you do it on your knees,” the Holy Father said. “It’s like ping pong, one thing leads to the other.”

Pope Francis told them to “beware of ecclesiastical elegance,” because concern for keeping churches pristine increases the temptation to keep the doors closed and “that won’t do.”

During the U.S. National Eucharistic Revival and with preparations well underway for the National Eucharistic Congress in July 2024, the Holy Father focused his remarks on the importance of eucharistic adoration and the essential tie between reverencing the Eucharist and serving one’s brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis said he did not want to make anyone “blush,” so he would not ask the priests how many hours a week they spend in adoration, but “I’ll throw the question out there.”

In the busy life of a priest, there are many possible excuses for limiting time in private prayer, the Holy Father said. “But if you don’t pray, if you don’t adore, your life is worth little.”

Pope Francis told them to be “priests for the people.” While priests often will not get to see the results of the seeds they plant, the Holy Father said, God wants them to trust that he will make them bear fruit.

Father Batista said the annual convention is always a great opportunity to share with other Hispanic priests and some that work with the Hispanic community from across the U.S.

“The atmosphere of friendship and fraternity is what we all consider the best gain we have,” Father said. “Sharing moments of prayer, the Eucharist in the major Basilicas in Rome was a plus. To be able to have deep insights about the Synod on Synodality from some participants brought us closer to what our Universal Church is facing and will continue working on.”

Father Batista added that meeting personally with Pope Francis was a blessing. “I brought him a book of poems written by a priest friend and a letter sent by a parishioner who was a Cuban political prisoner and it led us to share a few words. He asked me to pray for those who live in that condition.”

He concluded by saying that being president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests is a great responsibility but also is a joyful way of serving the Church in the U.S.

Father Muñoz described the trip to Rome and convention as an inspiring experience.

“Getting together with many other priests doing Hispanic Ministry all over the U.S. was encouraging; sharing different experiences working with Hispanic parishioners and realizing that it almost the same kind of situations,” Father said.

He said the private audience with Pope Francis was “incredible. His talk was touching, inspiring and realistic. Pope Francis really wants us to be holy, holy priests.”

While in Rome and at the Vatican, the group had the opportunity to celebrate Holy Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the final Mass together as a group was at St. Patrick Parish. The main celebrant at this Mass was Father Batista.