VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Meeting a group of seminarians who had walked more than 40 miles to see him at the Vatican, Pope Francis told them to give their all to prayer, study and pastoral preparation, or else have the “courage to seek another path.”

“Let’s be truthful here,” he said April 14, “the seminary is not a refuge for the many limitations we might have, a refuge from psychological weaknesses or a refuge because I don’t have the courage to move on with my life and I’m seeking a place that will defend me.”

“If your seminary were that, the church would be mortgaging its future,” he told students and staff members of the Pontifical Leonian College in Anagni, south of Rome.

A Catholic can serve God and the church in many ways, Pope Francis said. The ministerial priesthood is a specific vocation, a call to be like Jesus, the good shepherd, in the midst of his sheep.

“You are not preparing for a career or to become functionaries in a company or bureaucratic organization,” he said. Too many priests have traveled only “halfway” on their vocational path and are little more than bureaucrats, which “is not good for the church.”

Pope Francis told seminarians that he was not saying they had to be perfect to be worthy seminarians — “just think of the apostles” and how much they had to learn from Jesus.

Putting a modern spin on the apostles’ requests for places of honor beside Jesus, the pope told the seminarians to “think of James and John; one of them wanted to be prime minister and the other the minister of the economy because those were the most important” positions.

Despite the disciples’ misunderstanding about what discipleship meant, Jesus was patient with them and taught them along the way, the pope said.

A serious commitment to preparing for the priesthood shows in a willingness to be converted a little more each day, he said. That means meditating on the Scriptures, “experiencing the mercy of God in the sacrament of reconciliation in order to become generous and merciful ministers,” going to Mass, receiving the Eucharist and being men of prayer.

Before the call to become shepherds after Christ’s heart, he said, “we might respond like the Virgin Mary did to the angel: ‘But how is this possible?’ Becoming good shepherds in the image of Jesus is something so big and we are so small. Yes, it’s true, it is too big; but it’s not something we do. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit with our cooperation.”