By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Pope Francis met with Bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava on Monday morning, the second day of his Apostolic Journey to Slovakia.
Greeting them, and expressing gratitude for the invitation to “feel at home” in their midst, the Pope said in his address that he has come as a brother and feels like one of them.
“I am here to listen to your experiences, your questions, and the aspirations and hopes of this Church and this country. So it was with the first Christian community: they were constant in prayer and they walked together in concord,” he said.
A Church that lives her life within the world
The Pope notes that what we need most of all, is “a Church that can walk together, that can tread the paths of life holding high the living flame of the Gospel.” This Church, he continued, “is not a fortress, a stronghold, a lofty castle, self-sufficient and looking out upon the world below.”
He said that the Church is a community that seeks to “draw people to Christ with the joy of the Gospel” and “she is the leaven of God’s Kingdom of love and peace in our world.” Therefore, the Church must be humble like Jesus who stripped himself of everything and became poor in order to make us rich.
The Pope then praised the beauty of a humble Church, noting that it is one that does not stand aloof from the world, viewing it with a detached gaze, but rather “lives her life within the world” and is “willing to share and to understand people’s problems, hopes and expectations.”
In this way, the Church will be able to escape from self-absorption, because “the center of the Church is not the Church,” the Pope insisted. “We need to become immersed in the real lives of people and ask ourselves: what are their spiritual needs and expectations? What do they expect from the Church?”
The Holy Father went on to reflect on these questions, drawing inspiration from three words: freedom, creativity and dialogue.
“Without freedom, there can be no true humanity, for human beings were created free in order to be free,” the Pope said, noting that even the tragic chapters of the history of Slovakia provide the great lesson that “whenever freedom was attacked, violated and suppressed, humanity was disfigured and the tempests of violence, coercion and the elimination of rights rapidly followed.”
Freedom, the Pope continued, “is not something achieved automatically, once and for all. It is always a process, at times wearying and ever in need of being renewed.”
In this light, it is not enough to be free outwardly, or in structures of society, to be authentically free. This is because “freedom demands personal responsibility for our choices, discernment and perseverance” which involves being challenged by concrete situations that need us to take the risk of making a decision instead of doing what we did in the past, or what public opinion decides for us.
Pope Francis further notes that this idea can take hold in the Church too, where we sometimes want to have everything readily defined rather than being “Christians and adults who think, consult their conscience and allow themselves to be challenged.” He pointed out that in the spiritual life and in the life of the Church, “we can be tempted to seek an ersatz peace that consoles us, rather than the fire of the Gospel that disturbs and transforms us.”
Yet, “a Church that has no room for the adventure of freedom, even in the spiritual life, risks becoming rigid and self-enclosed,” the Pope warned, noting that even though some people might be used to this, the younger generation are neither attracted by a faith that leaves them no interior freedom, nor by a Church in which all are supposed to think alike and blindly obey.
The Holy Father, therefore, urged for training people “for a mature and free relationship with God,” addressing bishops and priests in particular. He encouraged them to help set people free from a “rigid religiosity” insisting that “no one should feel overwhelmed” but rather, “everyone should discover the freedom of the Gospel by gradually entering into a relationship with God, confident that they can bring their history and personal hurts into his presence without fear or pretence, without feeling the need to protect their own image.”
Reflecting on creativity, the Pope pointed at the great religious heritage born of the preaching and ministry of Saints Cyril and Methodius. These saints, he noted, “teach us that evangelization is never mere repetition of the past” and “the joy of the Gospel is always Christ, but the routes that this good news travels through time and history can be different.”
Together, Sts. Cyril and Methodius “invented a new alphabet for the translation of the Bible, the liturgy and Christian doctrine” and thus became, “apostles of the faith’s inculturation,” he said. “They invented new languages for handing on the Gospel; they were creative in translating the Christian message; and they drew so close to the history of the peoples they encountered that they learned their language and assimilated their culture.”
“Isn’t this what Slovakia also needs today? Isn’t this perhaps the most urgent task facing the Church before the peoples of Europe: finding new “alphabets” to proclaim the faith?” the Pope asked.
Recalling the creativity of the people who made an opening in the roof to lower the paralytic man to Jesus when they could not get through the door (Mk 2: 1-5), and the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Pope encouraged “new ways, means and languages to proclaim the Gospel” and to open up “different spaces and experiment with other means” if by preaching and pastoral care we can no longer enter by the usual way.
He added that Sts. Cyril and Methodius teach us that “the Gospel cannot grow unless it is rooted in the culture of a people, its symbols and questions, its words and its very life.”
Evangelization is “a process of inculturation,” Pope Francis said. “It is a fruitful seed of newness, the newness of the Spirit who renews all things.”
“A Church that trains people in interior freedom and responsibility, one able to be creative by plunging into their history and culture, is also a Church capable of engaging in dialogue with the world, with those who confess Christ without being ‘ours’, with those who are struggling with religion, and even with those who are not believers,” the Pope said.
This Church, he continued, unites and holds different traditions and sensibilities, making it possible for “communion, friendship and dialogue to flourish between believers, between the different Christian confessions and between peoples.”
On this, Pope Francis notes that “unity, communion and dialogue are always fragile especially against a backdrop of a painful history that has left its scars” yet wounds “can always turn into passages, openings that, in imitating the wounds of the Lord, allow God’s mercy to emerge.”
The Holy Father recalled a proverb: “If someone throws a stone at you, give him bread in return” noting that it reminds us of Jesus’ invitation to “break the vicious and destructive cycle of violence by turning the other cheek to those who persecute us, by overcoming evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21).” He also recalled the story of Jesuit Cardinal Korec who, fell ill after being persecuted, imprisoned and sentenced to forced labour. When the Cardinal came to Rome for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, he went to the catacombs and lit a candle for his persecutors, imploring mercy for them.
“This is the Gospel! It grows in life and in history through humble and patient love,” the Pope said.
Concluding his address, the Holy Father encouraged all to “persevere in their journey in the freedom of the Gospel, in the creativity of faith and in the dialogue that has its source in the mercy of God, who has made us brothers and sisters and calls us to be builders of harmony and peace.”