[Austen Ivereigh] In yet another landmark address in a year of key speeches, Pope Francis in Florence today challenged the Church in Italy to abandon its attachments and embrace the fervor and dynamism of a faith focussed on the frontiers.
In a 50-minute barnstormer in the city’s famous cathedral, known as the Duomo, Pope Francis told a national meeting of Italy’s Catholics not to search for solutions in conservatism and rigidity but to adopt the attitude Jesus portrayed in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 of humility, service, and an option for the poor.
He spoke on the theme chosen by the Fifth National Convention of the Italian Church, “A new humanism in Jesus Christ”, by meditating on the face of Jesus in the cathedral dome. He said it was “the face of a God who has emptied himself, a God who has assumed the condition of servant — humble and obedient until death.”
“The face of Jesus is similar to that of so many of our humiliated brothers, made slaves, emptied,” he went on. “We will not see anything of his fullness if we do not accept that God has emptied God’s self.”
Unless this was grasped, “we will not understand anything of Christian humanism and our words will be beautiful … but will not be words of faith”.
Reform and change
For the second time in just a few days, the Pope spoke of the importance of ‘reform’, as well as referring to the ‘revolutionary’ nature of faith enlivened by the Holy Spirit.
The 2,500 delegates from all of Italy’s dioceses frequently interrupted to clap, and at the end gave him a prolonged standing ovation that only stopped when he called them to prayer.
He told them the Church was semper reformanda — always in need of reform — but that reform did not consist in the umpteenth plan to change structures. “It means instead grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit — so that all will be possible with genius and creativity.”
Christian doctrine, he said, “is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries, but is alive, able to unsettle, animate.” Doctrine, he added, “has a face that isn’t rigid, a body that moves and develops. It has tender flesh: that of Jesus Christ.”
The Church in Italy, which is both huge and state-subsidised, has many of the problems associated with ‘establishment’ churches: a certain sclerosis, and attachment to power and privilege.
Pope Francis offered a series of antidotes to those temptations. He urged bishops to be pastors sustained by their people, who should be focussed on the kerygma in their preaching — the Good News of God’s salvation through Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection – rather than “complex doctrines”. He urged priests to imitate Don Camilo in the famous stories by Guareschi.
Closeness to the people and prayer are the key to living a Christian humanism that is popular, humble, generous, and joyful. If we lose this contact with the God’s faithful people we lose our humanity and we go nowhere.
He also asked the whole Italian Church to have an option for the poorest, suggesting that the poor have one half of a medal and the Church has the other half. The poor, he said, understand the attitude of Christ because they know the suffering Christ from experience.
While urging the delegates to believe in what he called “the genius of Italian Christianity”, he said, “May God protect the Italian Church from every surrogate of power, image, and money,” adding: “Evangelical poverty is creative and welcoming, it nurtures, and is filled with hope.”
Specifically, Pope Francis addressed two temptations that threatened to lure the Church away from the Christ of the Beatitudes. One was the heresy of the Pelagians, the other that of the Gnostics. The first is the temptation of conservatives, the other of progressives.
The Pelagian temptation was to have faith in structures, organizations, perfect planning. It led, he said, to a certain hardness, a desire to control. Pelagianism, he said, trusted clarity over the Holy Spirit. Yet it was useless to seek solutions in “conservatisms and fundamentalisms, in the restoration of obsolete ways of behaving and forms that are no longer capable culturally of meaning.” Church reform, he said, was alien to Pelagianism. He asked the Italian Church to be “free and open to the challenges of the present, never defensive for fear of losing something.”
The Gnostic temptation is to trust in clear reason and logic, lacking in the tenderness of the brother’s flesh. It is the temptation to remain at the level of endless conversation and ideas, “not putting anything into practice, not leading the Word into reality, trying to build on sand, remaining at the level of pure ideas or degenerating into a fruitless intimism that renders its dynamism sterile.”
Against these temptations, Pope Francis suggested a meditation on the living, fleshy Jesus in the Scriptures.
Let us look again at the features of the face of Christ, and his gestures. Let us see Jesus who eats and drinks with sinners (Mk 2:16, Mt 11:19); let us contemplate him as he speaks with the Samaritan woman (Jn 3:1-21); let us chance upon him as he meets Nicodemus after dark (Jn 3:1-21); let us savor with affection that scene in which he allows his feet to be anointed by a prostitute (Lk 7:35-50); let us feel his saliva on the tip of our tongues as he loosens them (Mk 7:33). Let us admire the “goodwill of all the people” that surrounds his disciples — i.e. us — and let us experience their “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46-7)
Pope Francis also urged the Italian Church to embrace dialogue, which he meant “to seek the common good for all”. He said they should not fear inevitable disagreement and conflict and but accept and bear it while transforming it into a link to a new process. No true humanism, he said, could exist without love, which was the basis of all dialogue.
“We should never be afraid of dialogue,” he said, adding that criticism “helps us keep theology from becoming ideology.”
Turning to young people, he called on them not to remain on the balcony looking down but to get involved in social and political dialogue. “Wherever you are,” he told them, “never build walls or borders, but public squares and field hospitals.”
The Church the Pope wants
Francis said he liked the idea of an “unsettled” Italian Church, one that was close to the abandoned, the forgotten, and the imperfect. “I want a joyful Church, one that has the face of mamma, who understands, walks with, caresses.”
He urged the Italian Church to read his Evangelii Gaudium “in a synodal way” — i.e. listening and discussing in parishes and communities — in order to put it into practice.
With Chinese workers in Prato
The day began with Francis travelling to the Tuscan city of Prato, where he told the city’s workers – many of them Chinese immigrants – to fight corruption and indifference, and work toward a culture of inclusion. He said the Lord asked them “not to remain closed in indifference, but to open ourselves”.
Recalling the deaths of Chinese factory workers killed two years ago in a factory fire, the Pope described them as “a tragedy of exploitation and inhuman life conditions.”
“The life of every community demands that we combat the cancer of corruption, the cancer of human and labour exploitation and the poison of illegality,” he added.
With the poor in Florence
After his speech in the cathedral, Pope Francis sat down for lunch with 60 of the poorest inhabitants of Florence at a Caritas centre known as “St Francis the Poor’s Table”. Francis was given a meal voucher when he arrived and ate off a plastic plate, just like everyone else.
After he reached to fill the glasses of the people he was with at table, it was suggested on Twitter that he was “Pope of the Pour”.