Whenever this pope opens his mouth . . . . I know there are a lot of people saying that whenever Francis opens his mouth he causes trouble. Unfortunately, I think those people are reading media reports, instead of what Francis actually says. Whenever I read what he actually says, I find it outstanding.
Here’s part of his off-the-cuff talk with the Polish bishops. So practical, so real:
True, the dechristianization, the secularization of the modern world is powerful, very powerful. But there are also those who say that while it is powerful, there are also clear indications of religiosity, of a reawakening of the religious sense. This too can be dangerous. I believe that in this highly secularized world we have also the other danger, that of a gnostic spiritualization. Secularization makes it possible for us to indulge in a spiritual life which is a little gnostic. We remember that this was the first heresy in the Church – the apostle John went after the gnostics, relentlessly! – it consists in a subjective spirituality, without Christ. For me the bigger problem with secularization is dechristianization: removing Christ, removing the Son. I pray, I feel… and that is all. This is gnosticism. [. . .]
What would I advise? I would say – but I believe it is in the Gospel, where there is precisely the Lord’s own teaching – closeness. Today we, the Lord’s servants – bishops, priests, consecrated persons and committed laypeople – need to be close to God’s people. Without closeness, there are only disembodied words. Let us think – I like to reflect on this – of the two pillars of the Gospel. What are the two pillars of the Gospel? The Beatitudes and Matthew 25, the “criteria” on which all of us will be judged. Concreteness, closeness, touching, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
“But you are saying all this because it is fashionable to speak about mercy this year!” No! This is the Gospel! The Gospel, the works of mercy. It shows us the Samaritan heretic who is moved, does what he has to do, and even risks his money! To touch. Then there is Jesus, who was always with people, with the disciples, or alone with the Father in prayer. Closeness. Touching. This is Jesus’s life… And when he was moved, at the gates of the city of Nain (cf. Lk 7:11-17), he went over to touch the bier saying: “Do not weep…” Closeness. It is closeness to touch the suffering flesh of Christ. The Church, the glory of the Church, is of course the martyrs, but also all those men and women who left everything to spend their lives in hospitals and schools, with children and with the sick…
The works of mercy: to touch, to teach, to console, to “waste time”. To waste time. I was very pleased once: a man who went to confession was in a situation where he couldn’t receive absolution. He had gone with a certain apprehension, because he had been sent away several times before: “No, no, go away”. The priest listened to him, explained the man’s situation, and told him: “But you keep praying. God loves you. I will give you my blessing. Do you promise to come back?” This priest “wasted time” in order to draw that man towards the sacraments. That is what closeness means.
Then too, young people. Because we have to talk about young people during these days. The young are “a bother”! Because they always come and say the same things. “Here is what I think…” or, “the Church should do this or that…” We need to be patient with young people. I knew a few priests when I was young. Those were the days when people went to confession more frequently than now. Those priests spent hours listening to the young, or received them in the parish office to hear the same things over and over, but they did so patiently. And then, to take young people out into the country, to the mountains… Think of Saint John Paul II. What did he do with the university students? Yes, he gave them classes, but he also went with them to the mountains! Closeness. He listened to young people, he spent time with them…
There is one last thing I would emphasize, because I believe that the Lord asks it of me: grandparents, the elderly. You suffered under communism, atheism. You know that it was the elderly who preserved and passed on the faith. The elderly possess the memory of a people; they preserve the memory of the faith, the memory of the Church. Don’t waste the elderly! In this throwaway culture, dechristianized as it is, we discard whatever is not useful or helpful. No! The elderly are the memory of a people; they are the memory of the faith. To connect young people with the elderly: this too is closeness. To be close and to build closeness.
That is how I would respond to the question. There are no easy answers, but we have to get our hands dirty. If we wait for the doorbell to ring, or for people to knock on the door… No, we have to go out and seek, like the shepherd who goes out to seek the lost sheep. Anyway, that’s what I think…
“A parish is exhausting if it is well organized. The renewal of the parish has to be a constant concern of bishops. How is this parish doing? What is it doing? What is its religious education programme like? How well is catechesis being presented? Is the church open? So many things… I think of one parish in Buenos Aires. Whenever an engaged couple arrived to get married, the secretary would immediately begin by saying: “Here are the prices”. This is wrong, parishes like this are wrong. How do we greet people? How attentive are we to them? Is someone always in the confessional? In parishes – not those in the country but in city parishes and those on the highways – if there is a confessional with the light on, people always come. Always! A welcoming parish. These are the questions we bishops should be asking our priests. “How is your parish doing. Do you go out? Do you visit the imprisoned, the sick, the elderly? What about the children? Do you have a place for them to play? What about the oratory? The oratory is one of the great parish institutions, at least in Italy. There kids play and learn a little catechesis. They come home tired, happy, and a good seed has been sown.
So the parish is important! There are those who say that the parish is no longer relevant because this is the hour of the movements. That is not true! The movements help, but the movements must not be an alternative to the parish. They must help in the parish, contribute to the parish, like the confraternities, Catholic Action and so many other groups [that is: in the past, too, there were organizations that helped parishes]. To want to innovate and change the parish structure? What I am saying may seem heretical, but it is how I see things. I believe the parish structure is analogous to the episcopal structure, different but analogous. The parish cannot be touched; it has to remain as a place of creativity, a reference point, a mother, all these things. It is where that inventiveness has to find expression.