VATICAN CITY (CNS) — With humor and passion, Pope Francis shared highlights of his personal faith journey and explained some key points of his teaching to an enthusiastic crowd of representatives from Catholic lay movements.
Celebrating a vigil on the eve of Pentecost with an estimated 200,000 people singing, chanting and waving their groups’ banners, Pope Francis focused on the importance of parents and grandparents educating their children in the faith, the knowledge that God wants a relationship with each person, the importance of caring for the poor and the need to pray for people who are denied religious freedom.
Without using a prepared text, the pope responded to questions presented to him prior to the May 18 event.
Pope Francis, who often talks about the beauty of God’s mercy and the sacrament of confession, told the crowd about one confession that he said changed his life.
“It was Sept. 21, 1953. I was almost 17 years old,” he said. In Argentina, it was the first day of spring. He said he felt the need to go to confession and entered his parish church where there was a priest he had never met before.
“I found someone waiting for me,” he said. “I don’t know what had happened, I don’t remember why that priest was there or why I felt the need to confess, but the truth is, that someone was waiting for me and had been waiting a while.”
“After that confession, I felt something had changed. I wasn’t the same,” he said. “It was like a voice, I felt a call; I was convinced I had to become a priest.”
Pope Francis said people talk a lot about the need to seek God, but the truth is that God always seeks people out first, that he is always waiting for them and always ready to love them.
Implying that he would like to hear confessions in Rome parishes like he did as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he said, “but I can’t, because to leave to hear confessions — there is no way out of here,” he said, leading to great laughter in St. Peter’s Square.
He told the crowd that often when he heard confessions in Buenos Aires, he would ask penitents if they had given alms to those begging on the church steps. If they said yes, he would ask if they looked the person in the eye and if they touched the person or just threw coins at him or her.
Catholics, he said, must “touch the body of Christ, take on the suffering of the poor. For Christians, poverty is not a sociological or philosophical or cultural category, it is a theological category,” because Christ made himself poor in order to walk the earth, suffer, die and rise to save humanity.
Pope Francis said the current global financial crisis is about much more than the economy; it’s a crisis caused by a lack of values and by putting money ahead of concern for people.
“Today — and it pains me to say this — a homeless person dying in the cold doesn’t make the news” nor do the millions of children around the globe who go to bed hungry each night.
“This is serious. This is serious,” he told the crowd. “We cannot rest easy while things are this way” and Christians cannot say, “‘Well, this is the way things are.’ We cannot become stodgy Christians, so polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those who are the flesh of Christ, those who are the flesh of Christ.”
Asked how he came to have faith. Pope Francis responded, “I had the grace of growing up in a family in which the faith was lived simply and concretely; but it was especially my grandmother — my father’s mother — who marked my faith journey. She explained things to us, spoke to us about Jesus, taught us the catechism.
“We don’t find the faith in the abstract,” he said. Faith is something one learns about from another person, and usually that person is a mother or grandmother.
The pope said he draws strength from praying the rosary each day and from praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament each night — “sometimes I nod off, it’s true … but he understands. And I feel such comfort knowing that he’s watching me.”
Pope Francis, who has spoken often at his morning Masses about the need for the parishes to have a strong outreach, returned to the theme with the lay movements, many of which focus on evangelization.
A parish that is focused only on being well organized and keeping members close to others who think and live like they do runs a great danger, he said. “When the church becomes closed, it becomes sick, sick.
“Think about a room closed up for a year,” the pope said. When someone finally enters there is an odor and nothing feels right. “A closed church is the same way; it’s a sick church.”
While Jesus stands at the door and knocks, trying to get into people’s hearts and lives, he said, there is also a possibility that Jesus is shut up inside a parish and “knocks at the door to get out and we don’t let him out because we’re insecure.”
The church is called to be a light to the world, he said. The world needs Christians’ witness to the Gospel, its “witness of fraternal love, solidarity and sharing.”
Telling the crowd he would spare them a show of hands, Pope Francis also asked how many people pray each day for persecuted Christians. Before the pope spoke, the crowd had heard from Paul Bhatti, who took over as Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs after his brother, who held the same position, was assassinated in 2011. Bhatti spoke about the witness of Pakistan’s Christian minority despite discrimination and even violence.
“We must promote religious liberty for all people,” the pope said. “Every man and woman must be free to profess his or her faith, whatever it may be. Why? Because that man and that woman are children of God.”