By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
At the start of Mass on Friday of the Fifth Week of Easter, Pope Francis turned his thoughts towards families.
“Today is the International Day of Families. Let us pray for families, that the Spirit of the Lord - the spirit of love, respect and freedom - may grow in families,” he said.
The early days of the Church
In his homily, Pope Francis remarked that, in the first reading (Acts 15: 22-31), the early days of the Church were filled with a mixture of peace, persecution and turmoil.
In times of peace, the Church grew and the word of God spread, he said. There were also persecutions beginning with Stephen and then Paul, who changed from being a persecutor to being persecuted. The primitive Church also had some turmoil like the situation in the first reading.
The newly converted Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia had believed in Jesus, been baptized and received the Holy Spirit without an intermediary stage. However, there were some who felt that pagan converts first had to be initiated as Jews before becoming Christians, called judaizers. This disturbed the pagan converts and made them question their status. They felt they were second-class Christians.
For this reason, the Apostles wrote to the Church in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. They acknowledged that some of their number had upset them with their teaching and disturbed their peace of mind without any mandate from the Apostles.
The danger of rigidity
Pope Francis reflected on the attitude of those early Christian preachers.
“Rigidity is not from the Spirit of God, it puts into question the gratuitousness of redemption and the resurrection of Christ,” said the Pope.
Pope Francis noted that the judaizers were people who had theological, pastoral and moral arguments for their rigidity. They wanted a religion of prescriptions and took away the freedom of the Holy Spirit and the joy of the Gospel.
Jesus, said the Pope, also had to confront the teachers of the law for their rigidity. He said “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves (Mt 23:15). The doctors of the law manipulated the consciences of the people making them rigid.
Pope Francis gave the example of pelagians who were notoriously rigid. He also gave more recent examples of apostolic organizations that seem to work well from the outside but were later found out to be corrupt.
He notes that rigidity stops us from enjoying the freedom that comes from justification. We can only enjoy the grace of freedom when we are not rigid.
“Justification is gratuitous. The death of Jesus is gratuitous, you do not pay for it. It is free!” said the Pope.
The joy of evangelical freedom
Pope Francis pointed out that the disciples solved the problem of rigidity by writing to the converts in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. They said, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.”
These, notes the Pope, were common sense morals. They helped the new converts not to confuse Christianity with paganism. When these Christians who had been disturbed received the letter, they were delighted with the encouragement it gave them. Their turmoil turned to joy.
The Pope remarks that “the spirit of evangelical freedom always brings joy”. This is what Jesus brought with his resurrection. It is not rigid but rather gratuitous. The disciples experienced this joy with Jesus when he said to them: “I no longer call you slaves… I call you friends” (Jn 15:15).
Concluding his homily, the Pope prayed that the Lord might help us to discern the fruits of evangelical gratuitousness from the fruits of rigidity.
“May the Lord free us from the spirit of rigidity that robs us of freedom.”