In one of his most important addresses to date, Pope Francis preached a powerful homily at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, concelebrated with Cardinals from around the world, the day after bestowing the “red hat” on a batch of twenty new prelates.
The readings for the day seemed hand-picked to play to Pope Francis’ strengths. The gospel spoke of Jesus reaching out to the marginalized of his time, healing a leper who had been cast out from the people. The Pope’s analysis of the text speaks volumes about his papacy and serves as a lens through which it is possible to understand many of his actions as pope.
Francis said that Christians have to choose between two different attitudes. We can either fear to lose the saved or we can strive to save the lost. According to the Pope, Jesus opted for the latter.
Francis painted in vivid detail what the life of a leper was like in the times of Jesus. He notes that Moses had legislated that lepers “are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness,” declaring them “unclean!”
“Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually!” Francis said. “They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face.”
The Pope also spoke of the reaction that lepers would have caused to the people of their time, inspiring “fear, contempt and loathing.” Lepers were abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. “Indeed,” Francis said, “society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them.”
Francis noted that the purpose of this rule was “to safeguard the healthy,” but it ended up sacrificing some to save the others.
Yet Jesus, as the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper, Francis said. “He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being ‘hemmed in’ by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected.”
So almost without thinking, Jesus acts. “Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea,” Francis said, “without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!”
“Jesus,” said the Pope, “is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp.”
From this example, the Pope drew a conclusion about the whole of Christian history, and what the Church is called to be for the world. “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith,” he said, “we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking.”
The Pope contrasted the thinking of the “doctors of the law,” which would remove the danger “by casting out the diseased person,” and the thinking of God, who in his mercy “embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.”
“The Church’s way,” Francis said, “has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.”
This does not mean, however, “underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold,” he said, but it means “welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and passively watching the suffering of the world.”
“The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart,” he said.
“The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those on the ‘outskirts’ of life,” an attitude that Francis called “God’s own approach.”
Jesus’ compassion, Francis said, “made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need.”
“Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment,” he said.
In healing the leper, “Jesus does not harm the healthy,” the Pope said, but rather, “he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law.”
In a word, Francis said, “charity cannot be neutral, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial!” By its nature, “charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous!” he said.
Pope Francis concluded his homily by addressing the new cardinals, telling them that “this is the ‘logic,’ the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church,” and inviting them to live their ministry in this way.
“I urge you,” he said, “to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul—who encounters discrimination!”
“We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!” he said. “Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome