Pope Francis calls the Italian church to radical renewal
Speaking in the magnificent cathedral of Florence known as the “Duomo,” Pope Francis issued a clarion call to the Italian church to radically renew itself by adopting “the sentiments of Jesus: humility, disinterest and beatitude.”
He encouraged them to do so by avoiding “the surrogates of power, image and money,” by putting the Beatitudes taught by Jesus into practice in daily life, and making a fundamental option for the poor.
Invited to address the Fifth National Convention of the Italian Church that is being held in Florence,the city that was the cradle of the Renaissance, Francis delivered a blockbuster speech on Nov. 10 in which he strongly challenged this ancient Catholic community that has given so much to the world over the centuries.
Standing at a lectern under the cupola of this most beautiful cathedral that bears the representation of the Last Judgement, Francis spoke with passion to the 2,500 delegates present from every diocese in Italy—bishops, priests, men and women religious and lay faithful.
They had gathered in Florence to discuss and plan their pilgrim journey in the coming years around the theme: “The new humanism in Jesus Christ.” Francis took that seemingly abstract theme and offered both substance and direction in a very concrete way, by focusing their attention on “the sentiments of Christ Jesus": humility, disinterest and beatitude.
Commenting on “humility,” he said “the obsession to preserve one’s own glory, one’s own ‘dignity,’ one’s own influence, should not be part of our sentiments. We must seek the glory of God, and this does not coincide with our own.”
Referring to “disinterest,” Francis like St Paul said, “each one should not seek his own interest, but that of the others.”
Many times during his talk he quoted from his programmatic document "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel”). He did so when speaking of "disinterest," saying Christians must reach out to others, not be narcissistic or self-referential or “remain shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe (No. 49).” He told them, “Our duty is to work to make this world a better place and to struggle (for this)" and emphasized that “our faith is revolutionary through the impulse that comes from the Holy Spirit.”
Pointing to “beatitude” (blessed), Francis reminded them that “the Christian is blessed because s/he has in themselves the joy of the Gospel.” He recalled that for the great saints happiness (beatitude) was linked to humility and poverty. Likewise today, he said, “the humble part of our people” experiences this happiness through solidarity, through the daily sacrifice of work—often hard and badly paid—for the love of those who are dear to them, and through their miseries lived with trust in God’s providence and mercy.
He drew their attention to the fact that the Beatitudes in the Gospel “begin with a blessing and end with the promise of a consolation” but to undertake this journey to happiness one must have “a heart that is open” to the Spirit of Jesus.
Emphasizing the importance of “humility, disinterest and beatitude,” Pope Francis said there is a message here for the Italian church. These traits underline that “we must not be obsessed with "power," even if takes the face of a power that is useful and functional to the social image of the church.” Francis warned that “If the church does not take on these sentiments of Jesus, it becomes disoriented and loses its meaning.” Indeed, he said, “these sentiments of Jesus tell us that a church that thinks of itself and of its own interests would be sad.”
He pointed out that “the Beatitudes are a mirror in which to see ourselves, one which permits us to know if we are walking on the right road: it is a mirror that does not lie.”
Francis said a church that has “humility, disinterest, beatitude” is a church “that knows how to recognize the action of God in the world, in culture, and in the daily life of people.” He repeated yet again: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures ("The Joy of the Gospel," no. 49).”
He went on to warn the Italian Church against “two temptations,” and looking up from his text he drew much laughter when he remarked, “I say two, not fifteen as I told the (Roman) Curia!”
He identified the first temptation as “Pelagian.” It pushes the church not to be humble, disinterested, blessed, but does so “under the appearance of good.” It brings the church “to put trust in structures, in organizations, in planning that is perfect because it is abstract,” and often leads it “to assume a style of control, of hardness, of norms.” These norms give "the Pelagian the security of feeling superior, of having a precise orientation” and “in this it finds its strength, not in the gentle breeze of the Spirit.” He told the Italian church that “faced with the evils or the problems of the church it is useless to seek solutions in conservatisms or fundamentalisms, in the restoration of behavior and forms that are outdated and that even culturally do not have the capacity to be meaningful. “
Then in words that took on particular significance in the light of the recent synod, he reminded everyone that “the Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogations, but is living, and knows how to disturb and encourage. It has a face that is not rigid, a body that moves and develops, it has tender flesh. The Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ.”
The church “must always be reformed” Francis said, but this reform “is alien to Pelagianism” and is not exhausted in the latest plan to change structures. Instead it means “to insert and root oneself in Christ and to allow oneself to be guided by the Spirit. Then everything will be possible with genius and creativity.”
He encouraged the Italian church to let itself be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to adopt the spirit of the great explorers of the past who dared to go out in their ships on the open sea, not fearing frontiers or storms. He urged it “to be a free church and be open to the challenges of the present time, never on the defensive for fear of losing something.”
Then speaking of the second temptation, which he identified as “Gnosticism,” Francis said this leads to “trusting in clear, logical reasoning” which “loses the tenderness of the flesh of the brother.” The fascination of Gnosticism—he said—is that of “ a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings” ("The Joy of the Gospel," No. 94).
He explained that the difference between every form of Gnosticism and Christianity is to be found in the mystery of the incarnation (of God who became man). “Not to put the Word (of God) into practice, not to bring it to reality, means to build on sand, to remain in pure ideas and to degenerate into intimacies that bear no fruit because they make its dynamism,” he said
He urged the Italian church to follow the inspiring example of its “great saints” from Francis of Assisi to Philip Neri, but also to draw insights from Don Camillo whom Guareschi presented in his books as “a poor priest in the countryside, who knew his parishioners individually and loved them...” as he did Peppone (the communist mayor of the village).
Francis drew great applause when he reminded the Italian church that “closeness to the people and prayer are the keys to living a popular, humble, generous, joyful Christian humanism” but “if we lose this context with the faithful people of God we lose humanity and we go nowhere.”
“You may ask what then are we to do?” Francis stated. “It’s up to you to decide: the people and pastors together, in a synodal way,” he told them. He encouraged them to do this while fixing their eyes on the scene of the Last Judgment in the cathedral, and added,“The Beatitudes and the words we have read on the universal judgment help us to live the Christian life at the level of sanctity. They are few, simple words, but they are practical.”
At the same time, the Argentine pope had some suggestions to offer. He told the bishops: “I ask you to be pastors. Nothing more! Just pastors.” Moreover, he said, “Do not be preachers of complex doctrines, but announcers of Christ, dead and risen for us. Aim at the essential!”
He encouraged this church to work for “the social inclusion of the poor,” to make “the preferential option for the poor” and prayed, "May God protect the Italian Church from every surrogate of power, image,money."
Francis called the church in Italy to develop “the capacity to encounter and dialog so as to foster social friendship in your country, seeking the common good.” But he reminded them that “to dialogue is not to negotiate,” but “to discuss together and to think what is the best solution for everyone.” Conflict can arise in dialogue, he said, but they must not fear or ignore that, rather they must “face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process" ("The Joy of the Gospel," No. 97). He reminded them that “the best way to dialogue is not to talk and discuss but to do something together, to build together, and to make projects, no alone, among Catholics, but together with all people of good will.”
He called on the whole church in Italy to engage in the public debate for the construction of the common society, and he invited the young people “to be builders” of “an Italy that is better,” and to engage in social and political dialogue, and not just watch from the balcony. "Today we are not living in an era of change but in a change of era", he stated. He reminded that "the Lord is active and at work in the world" and urged them to go out on the roads and crossroads and call whomsoever you meet,"no one excluded", and help the one who's on the side of the road. He encouraged them "to see problems as challenges, not as obstacles" and to "build bridges, not walls."
Wrapping up, he told the convention,” I would like an Italian church that is restless, always close to the abandoned, the forgotten and the imperfect. I desire a joyful church with the face of a mother that understands, caresses and accompanies.” He urged them to “dream of such a church, believe in it, and innovate with freedom.”
He asked them in the coming years to study “in a synodal way” on his programmatic document, "Evangelii Gaudium," in their dioceses, parishes, communities and institutions, so as to draw from it practical criteria and ways for realizing the dream of the church he had just described.
He expressed confidence that “as an adult church” they can do so, and translate and build on it in creative ways, just as their great countrymen from Dante to Michelangelo did in unsurpassable ways in their day.
Pope Francis concluded with these words of encouragement: “Believe in the genius of Italian Christianity, which is not the patrimony of individuals, or of an elite but of the community and the people of this extraordinary country.”
The 2,500 delegates had interrupted his 50-minute talk many times with rapturous applause, and at the end they gave him a prolonged standing ovation that only stopped when he called them to prayer.