VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Christian faith and a moral life are responses to God’s mercy and not the result of “titanic” human effort, Pope Francis said.
In meetings and Masses March 7-8, the pope repeatedly returned to the theme of the church as an agent of God’s mercy and to the benefits of returning to confession during Lent.
Marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Communion and Liberation lay movement, Pope Francis met March 7 with more than 80,000 members who filled St. Peter’s Square and the boulevard leading to it.
Belonging to a Catholic movement or any other church group is supposed to help Catholics live a Christian life and reach out to others, he said. If instead it becomes a “brand-name spirituality” and an identity that excludes others, it is just another organization.
“Focused on Christ and the Gospel, you can be the arms, hands, feet, mind and heart of a church that goes out,” he said. “The path of the church is to go out in search of those far off in the peripheries, to serve Jesus in every person who is marginalized, abandoned, without faith, disillusioned with the church or a prisoner of their own selfishness.”
The only way to share the faith with others is to have first experienced the grace of God’s mercy, he told the crowd. “Only one who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy truly knows the Lord.”
When one has sinned and experienced God’s forgiveness, he said, he or she is filled with the desire to change and to live differently. “The Christian moral life is not a titanic self-willed effort by a person who decides to be consistent and is able to do so after some kind of solidarity challenge.”
Instead, Pope Francis said, living a moral life is the ongoing response to “a surprising, unpredictable mercy — a mercy that is, in fact, ‘unjust’ according to human terms — from the God who knows me, knows my betrayals and yet loves me anyway, prizes me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me and waits for me.”
The mission of the church is to be a sacrament of that mercy in the world, he said. The path of the church is “to demonstrate the great mercy of God.”
Pope Francis reminded the Communion and Liberation members that he had told new cardinals in February, “The way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity,” but “to pour out God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”
In his Angelus address at the Vatican March 8 and during his homily at a Mass that evening at Rome’s Church of St. Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, the pope returned to the theme of mercy.
At both events, he used the Gospel story of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple as a call to Catholics to allow Jesus to cleanse their hearts, especially during Lent and particularly through the sacrament of penance.
People should ask themselves: “Would I allow Jesus to do a bit of cleansing in my heart?” he said at the Angelus. The Gospel story demonstrating Jesus’ anger could make people afraid, he said, “but Jesus will never beat you; Jesus cleanses with tenderness. Mercy is his way of cleansing.”
During Mass in the parish, Pope Francis repeated the last lines of the Gospel story: Jesus “knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.”
“Jesus knows everything that is in our hearts. We cannot fool Jesus,” he said. “We cannot stand before him and pretend to be saints.”
Honesty is the best policy, he said. Stand before Jesus and tell him that while you do some good things, you are also a sinner. “If you tell him, ‘I’m a sinner,’ it won’t frighten him.”
Just like the temple that Jesus entered in the Gospel story, “inside of us there is dirt, there are the sins of selfishness, arrogance, pride, lust, envy, jealousy,” he said. “Open your hearts to Jesus’ mercy. Say to him, ‘Jesus, look at all this dirt. Come, cleanse it. Cleanse it with your mercy, with your sweet word; cleanse me with your caress.”