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Pope Francis puts his certainty of faith down to his grandmother, from whom he first heard the Christian proclamation; to a life changing encounter with Christ at age 17, through a unknown priest who heard his Confession; to his daily praying of the Rosary to his ‘Mother’, Our Lady and to allowing himself to be held in God’s gaze even when he nods off after a tiring day, while in prayer before the Tabernacle.
At 17: 30 the Pope entered the square on his jeep and for a full 30 minutes toured through the throng arriving half-way down the Via della Conciliazione to greet as many people as possible.
After two readings taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the treatise of St. Irenaeus, there were two testimonies. John Waters, an Irish journalist, spoke of his leaving the faith, in search of a freedom that “makes us feel all-powerful and deeply powerless,” typical man of today who “seeks to dominate everything and that’s why he feels isolated and alone” . He then recalled being brought to “ his knees” by alcoholism, from which he was saved thanks to some friends who helped him rediscover the faith of his childhood. Now, he concluded “I am not only John, but one with the One who created me and I could not be free in any other way.”
The second testimony was that of Paul Bhatti, former minister for minorities in Pakistan, who thanked Pope Francis for being able to “share the pain and hopes of the Christians of Pakistan.” He recalled the mission of his brother Shahbaz, who was killed by Islamic extremists March 2, 2011, his commitment to the poor, the marginalized, the weak who “are the body of the persecuted Christ.” At the same time, his brother never stopped dreaming of “a Pakistan free and open to all communities and minorities”, in dialogue with Muslims, who “bear witness to the love of Jesus.”
Four representatives from the Movements then addressed their questions to Pope Francis. Pope, who had previously read the questions, gave an unscripted response, apologizing at the end that he was “too long”. The dialogue lasted for at least 40 minutes:
Pope Francis began by wishing everyone his signatory “Good evening”. He said “I am very happy to meet you and that we are all coming together in this square, to pray, to be united and to wait for the gift of the Spirit. I knew your questions beforehand so I thought about them – this is not without some thought! First, the truth! I have them written here. But that first one, “how were you able to achieve certainty of faith in your life, and what the path can you indicate to us so that each one of us can overcome our fragility of faith?” Is a historical question, because it is about my history, my life , no?
I have had the good fortune to grow up in a family where the faith was lived in a simple and concrete manner, but it was especially my grandmother, my father’s mother, who marked my journey of faith. She was a woman who explained everything to us, who spoke to us of Jesus, who taught us the Catechism … I always remember that on Good Friday in the evening, she would take us to the Candle-light Procession, and at the end of this Procession, we would arrive before the recumbent Christ, and my grandmother made us – us kids – kneel down and she would say: “Look, He is dead, but tomorrow he will Rise up!.” I received my first Christian proclamation right from this woman, from my grandmother, right? That is something beautiful! The first proclamation is in the home, within the family, right? And this makes me think of the love of many mothers and so many grandmothers in the transmission of the faith. They are the ones that transmit the faith. Even in the early days, because St. Paul said to Timothy: “I remember the faith of your mother and your grandmother.” To all the mothers who are here, to all grandmothers, [I ask you to ] think about this! Transmitting the faith. Because God puts people alongside us who help our journey of faith. We do not find our faith ‘in the abstract, no: it is always a person who preaches it to us, who tells us who Jesus is, who gives us the faith, who gives us the first announcement. And so it was in my first experience of faith.
But…there is a very important day for me: September 21, 1953. I was almost 17 It was the “Day of the Student,” for us the start of Spring – for you the start of Autumn. Before going to the festival, I went to my parish. And there I found a priest I did not know, but I felt the need to confess. And this was for me an experience of encounter: I found that someone was waiting for me. I do not know what happened, I do not remember, I do not know if it was that priest who was there, whom I did not know, why I felt this urge to confess, but the truth is that someone was waiting for me. Someone was waiting for me for a long time. And after the confession I felt that something had changed. I was not the same. I felt a voice call me: I was convinced that I had to become a priest. And this experience of faith is important. We say that we must seek God, go to Him to ask for forgiveness … but when we go, He is waiting for us, He is the first one there! We, in Spanish, we have a word that explains this well: “The Lord always there primerea” is first, is waiting for you! And it is a really great grace to find Someone who is waiting for you. You go to Him a sinner, but He is already waiting to forgive you. That experience that the Prophets of Israel said that the Lord is like the flower of almond trees, the first flowers of Spring. Before any other flowers appear, there He is: He who waits. The Lord is waiting for us. And when we seek Him out, we find this reality: that He is waiting to welcome us, to give us His love. And this creates wonder in the heart of those who do not believe, and this is how faith grows! With an encounter with a Person, with an encounter with the Lord. Some will say, “No, I prefer to study faith in books!” Ah, yes it is important to study. But look, that alone is not enough! The important thing is our encounter with Jesus, our encounter with Him, and that gives us faith, because it is He who gives us Faith! While you were talking about the fragility of faith: how do we overcome it. Fragility’s biggest enemy curiously enough, is fear. But do not be afraid! We are weak, we know it but He is stronger! If you are with Him, then there is no problem! A child is fragile: I have seen many today. But they are with their father, their mother: so they are safe! We too are safe with the Lord, we are secure. Faith grows with the Lord, out of the very hands of the Lord. And that makes us grow and makes us stronger. But if we think that we can make it on our own, ah, think of Peter, what happened to him, “Lord, I will never disown you,” and then the cock crowed three times and he had, no? We think, when we have too much faith in our own abilities, we are more fragile, more fragile. Always with the Lord, speaking with the Lord, with Him in the Eucharist, in the Bible, in prayer … Even as a family, with our Mother, even with her because she is the one that leads us to the Lord, the mother who knows everything the Lord. So let us pray to Our Lady and ask her as our Mother to make us strong. That is what I think about the fragility: at least, in my experience. The one thing that makes me stronger every day is to pray the Rosary to Our Lady. I feel great strength because I go to her and I feel strong”.
Moving on to the second question, the Pope discussed the challenge of Evangelization for the Movements, of how to effectively communicate the faith in today’s world”.
Pope Francis said “I will say three words only. First: Jesus. What is the most important thing? Jesus . If we push ahead with planning and organization, beautiful things indeed, but without Jesus, then we are on the wrong road. Jesus is the most important thing. I would like to take the opportunity now to make a small, but fraternal, reproach, among ourselves, alright? All of you in the square shouted out: “Francis, Francis, Pope Francis ” … But, where was Jesus? I want to hear you shout out. “Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and He is in our midst.” From now on , no more “Francis”, only “Jesus”. Alright?
The second word is prayer. Look at the face of God, but above all – and this is related to what I said before – know that you are being looked at in turn. The Lord looks at us: He looks at us first. And this is my experience, this is what I experience in front of the Tabernacle when I go to pray in the evening, before the Lord. Sometimes I nod off a little bit, No?, It’s true, because the strains of the day’s work makes you fall asleep. But He understands me. I feel so much comfort when I think that He is looking at me. We think that we have to pray, talk, talk, talk … No! Just let the Lord gaze at you. When He looks at us, He empowers us and helps us to witness to Him. Because the question was on the testimony of faith, right? Prayer … first, “Jesus”, then “prayer” and feeling that God is holding me by the hand. And the importance of this is to allow ourselves be guided by Him. And that’s more important than any planning or calculations. We are true evangelizers when we let ourselves be guided by Him. Think of Peter … maybe he was taking a siesta after lunch and had the vision, the vision of the tablecloth with all the animals and that Jesus was saying something but he did not understand. Then, some non-Jews came to call him to go into a house, and he saw how the Holy Spirit was there. Peter was guided by Jesus in that first evangelization of the Gentiles, who were not Jews, something unimaginable at that time. And so it has been, throughout history, throughout history. Be guided by Jesus. This is our leader: Jesus is our leader.
And third, “witness.” We have Jesus, then prayer – prayer, letting oneself be guided by Him – and then witness. But I would like to add something. This allowing ourselves to be guided by Jesus opens us to being surprised by Jesus. When people think of evangelization, they think of projects, strategies, making plans? But … they are only tools, small tools. The important thing is that Jesus, and being guided by Him, and then come the strategies. But that is secondary. Witness, the communication of faith … but the faith can only be communicated through witness and that is through love. Not with our ideas, but by living the Gospel in our own lives, which the Holy Spirit breathes within us. It’s like a synergy between us and the Holy Spirit, and this is witness. The Church is brought forward by the Saints, who are the ones who really give this witness. And like Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI said, the world today has so much need of witnesses. Not so much of teachers, but of witnesses. Less talk, speak through the way you live: the unity of your life, the consistency of your life! Consistency of life means living Christianity like an encounter with Jesus that leads me towards the other and not as a social fact, but … is this how we are socially? Are we Christians? Closed in on ourselves? No, not that. Witness”.
The third question regarded how we can live as a poor Church, for the poor. How does the suffering of others question our faith? How can we all, as Movements, Lay Associations, offer a concrete and effective contribution to the Church and society to address this crisis that touches the public ethics “- this is important! – The “model of development, politics, in short, a new way of being men and women?.
Pope Francis responded “I will pick up again from the subject of witness. First of all, the main contribution we can make is to live the Gospel . The Church is not a political movement, or a well-organized structure: it is not that. We are not an NGO, and when the Church becomes an NGO it loses its salt, it has no taste, it’s just an empty organization. And this – be clever! Because the devil deceives us, because there is the danger of hyper – efficiency. One thing is to preach Jesus, effectiveness, being efficient is another thing: no, that’s another value. The value of the Church, basically, is to live the Gospel and give witness to our faith. To be the ‘salt of the earth, light of the world’, is called to make present in society the yeast of the Kingdom of God and do it first with our witness, our witness of fraternal love, solidarity, sharing. When you hear some say that solidarity is not a value, it is a primary attitude that needs to be done away with… there’s something wrong! Today people are only concerned with worldly efficacy. The moments of crisis, such as the one we are experiencing – as you mentioned before, “we are in a world of lies”, no? Lies, it is a crisis – this time of crisis, but … let’s be careful, ok? It is not only an economic crisis, it is a cultural crisis. It is a human crisis: what is in crisis is mankind! And what can be destroyed, is mankind! Mankind, the image of God! For this is a deep crisis. In this time of crisis we cannot worry only about ourselves, close in on ourselves in loneliness, discouragement, in a sense of helplessness before our problems. Please do not close in on yourselves! That is a danger. But … we lock ourselves up inside our parish, among our friends, in our movement, with people who think the same as we do … But, what is happening? When the Church becomes closed in on itself, it gets sick. Think of a closed room, a room locked for a year, when you go, there is a smell of damp, all these things here, that’s not right. A Church that is closed in on itself is just the same, it is a sick Church.
“The Church must go out from herself. Where? Towards the existential outskirts”, even if that means risking accidents along the way, in the outward journey. To those who worry about what can happen to the Pope responds : “I prefer a thousand times a Church damaged by an accident, than a sick Church closed in on itself”. Faith- he added – is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do the same, help others to encounter Jesus.
Pope Francis continued “we live in a culture of confrontation, no?, A culture of fragmentation, a culture of what we don’t really need. A culture of the disposable. But,– this is part of the crisis – just think about the elderly, who have the wisdom of a people; think of the children who are … The culture of waste. But, we have to bring about encounter, we have to make our faith a culture of encounter and of friendship, a culture where we find brothers and sisters, we can talk even with those who do not think like us, even with those with which have a different faith, who do not have the same faith as our own. But everyone has something in common with us: they are made in the image of God! They are children of God!. Being open to an encounter with everyone, without negotiating the faith we belong to. And this is important: with the poor. If we step outside ourselves, we find poverty. Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don’t have food – that’s not news. This is grave. We can’t rest easy while things are this way!
But … this is the way things are. We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those who are the flesh of Christ, those who are the flesh of Christ”.
Pope Francis spoke of when he would hear Confessions, he would always ask: “Do you give alms to the beggars on the Street?” “Yes, father”. “Ah, good, good”. And I used to add: “Tell me, when you give alms, do you look into the eyes of the person you are giving alms to?” – “Ah, I don’t know, I haven’t noticed.” My next question: “And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the one to whom you give alms, or throw the coin and [wipe your hands]?” That’s the problem: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, to take upon ourselves this pain for the poor. Poverty, for us Christians, is not a philosophical or cultural or sociological category: no, it is a theological category. I would say, perhaps the first category, because God, the Son of God, humbled himself, became poor to walk along the road with us”.
The Holy Father continued: “Being a poor Church for the poor begins by embracing the flesh of Christ. If we embrace to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something about what poverty is, the poverty of the Lord. And that’s not easy. But there is a problem which is not good for Christians: the spirit of the world, the worldly spirit. Spiritual worldliness. This leads us to a certain sufficiency, to live according to the spirit of the world and not that of Jesus”. Pope Francis said that in order to address the current crisis that touches public ethics, the development model, politics we must first understand that it is a “human crisis, it destroys the man, it has stripped man of ethics. And in public life, in politics, if there is no ethics, an ethics of reference that makes us transcendent, everything, everything is possible and we can do anything we want. And we see this when we read the newspapers, how this lack of ethics in public life greatly wounds all of humanity.
I would like to tell you a story. I have told this twice this week, but I’ll tell it a third to you. It’s the story about a biblical midrash, a rabbi of the twelfth century. He tells the story of the building of the Tower of Babel, and he says that to build the Tower of Babel bricks had to be made. This meant making the mud, bringing the straw, mixing them … then, in the oven, and when the brick was made it had to be hoisted up, to build the Tower of Babel. Every brick was a treasure, for all the work it took to make. When a brick fell, it was a national tragedy, and that worker guilty of breaking it was punished. But if a worker fell, nothing happened: it was something else. This still happens today: if investments in banks, drop a little , it’s a tragedy! But if people are starving, if they have nothing to eat, if they are not healthy, it does not matter! This is our crisis today! And the witness of a poor Church for the poor goes against this mentality.
Pope Francis then turned to the fourth question about how we can help and support our brothers and sisters who still today are persecuted for their faith. He said:
“Two virtues are needed to proclaim the Gospel: courage and patience. They are in the Church of patience. They suffer and there are more martyrs today than in the early centuries of the Church. More martyrs. Our brothers and sisters. They suffer. They carry the faith until martyrdom. But martyrdom is never a defeat: martyrdom is the highest rank of witness that we have to give. We are all on the way to martyrdom. [We are ] small martyrs: we give up this, do that … they, poor things, give up their life, but they give it up – as we heard in the situation in Pakistan – they give it up for love for Jesus, to witness Jesus. A Christian must always have this attitude of meekness, humility, the attitude that they have, trusting in Jesus, entrusting themselves to Jesus. It should be noted that many times these conflicts do not have a religious origin, often there are other causes of a social and political nature and unfortunately, religious affiliations are used like fuel to the fire. A Christian must always know how to respond to evil with good, although it is often difficult”.
We must try to make them feel, these brothers and sisters, that we are deeply united – deeply united! – to their situation, that we know that they are Christians who have entered a state of patience. When Jesus goes to his Passion, he enters [a state of] patience. We must make it known to them, but also make it known to the Lord. I ask the question again: Do you pray for these brothers and sisters? Do you pray for them? …in your every day prayers? I will not ask you to raise your hands. But think well, do we in our everyday prayer say to Jesus: “Lord, look at these brothers, look at these sisters who suffer so much, so much suffering.” And they experience the limits, they very limits between life and death. And to us, this experience should lead us to promote religious freedom for all: for everyone! Every man and woman should be free in his religious confession, whatever it is. Why? Because that man, that woman are children of God”.
And concluding his unscripted response to the questions put before him, on how to be certain in the faith, on how these Movements could live out their mission, about being a poor Church for the poor and about supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, Pope Francis repeated : Never be a Church closed in on itself. Be a Church that goes outside, which is on the outskirts of existence. May the Lord guide us there. Thank you”.
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