“The cry of the poor is the cry of hope of the church,” Pope Francis declared in an inspiring and challenging homily at Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, on Oct. 27, at the close of the three-week-long Pan-Amazonian synod that may well prove to have been a turning point in the history of the church in the region and perhaps also worldwide.
He repeated the words, “the cry of the poor is the cry of hope of the church,” as he commented on the Gospel story of the Pharisee and the tax collector that had just been read. “How many times, even in the church, have the voices of the poor not been heard and perhaps scoffed at or silenced because they are inconvenient,” he remarked. But, he added, “in this synod we have had the grace of listening to the voices of the poor and of reflecting on the precariousness of their lives, threatened by predatory models of development.”
“In this synod we have had the grace of listening to the voices of the poor and of reflecting on the precariousness of their lives, threatened by predatory models of development.”
He strongly denounced those “predatory models” that are not only posing a deadly threat to the lives of the 34 million inhabitants of the Amazonian region, including its 2.5 million voluntary isolated indigenous peoples, but also to its tropical rainforests that are a vital source of life for all of humanity.
He delivered his homily during a Mass that he concelebrated with the 160 cardinals, archbishops and bishops who participated in the synod and 95 priests, and at which he carried a crozier made from Amazonian wood, a gift from the synod participants. Among the celebrants were 16 representatives of the region’s indigenous peoples.
The Sistine choir led the singing in Latin at the Mass. As Francis celebrated at the altar, one of the synod’s main protagonists, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Brazilian cardinal who had sat next to him at the 2013 conclave which elected him and whispered: “Do not forget the poor,” stood at his side. They were together with the two men who helped draft the synod’s final document: Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., and Peru’s Bishop Martinez De Aguirre Guinea, O.P. Pope Francis wore green vestments.
In his homily, Francis contrasted the prayer of the Pharisee to that of the tax collector. He noted that the Pharisee began his prayer well by thanking God, but then “brimming with self-assurance about his own ability to keep the commandments,” he went on to mention “his own merits and virtue...focused only on himself” and “ends up praising himself instead of praying.”
Francis said, “He asks nothing from the Lord because he does not feel needy or in debt; he feels God owes something to him.” Indeed, “he stands in the temple of God, but he worships a different god: himself. And, many ‘prestigious’ groups, ‘Catholic Christians,’ go along this path.”
Pope Francis said the Pharisee forgets the greatest commandment: “to love God and our neighbor.” In fact, “the Pharisee forgets his neighbor; indeed, he despises him...his neighbor has no worth, no value. He considers himself better than others, whom he calls literally ‘the rest, the remainders’... the ‘leftovers,’ scraps from which to keep one’s distance.”
Then in the most striking passages in his homily, Pope Francis, speaking with passion, remarked: “How many times do we see this happening over and over again in life and history! How many times do those who are prominent, like the Pharisee with respect to the tax collector, raise up walls to increase distances, making other people feel even more rejected.
"How many times do those who are prominent, like the Pharisee with respect to the tax collector, raise up walls to increase distances, making other people feel even more rejected."
“Or by considering them backward and of little worth, they despise their traditions, erase their history, occupy their lands and usurp their goods. How much alleged superiority, transformed into oppression and exploitation, exists even today! We saw this during the synod, when speaking about the exploitation of creation, of people, of the inhabitants of the Amazon, of the trafficking of persons, the trade in human beings.”
He continued, “The mistakes of the past were not enough to stop the plundering of other persons and the inflicting of wounds on our brothers and sisters and on our sister earth: We have seen it in the scarred face of the Amazon region.” Even today, “worship of self carries on hypocritically with its rites and ‘prayers,’ forgetting the true worship of God which is always expressed in love of one’s neighbor. Even Christians who pray and go to Mass on Sunday are subject to this religion of the self.”
Pope Francis urged the synod fathers, “Let us examine ourselves and see whether we too may think that someone is inferior and can be tossed aside, even if only in our words. Let us pray for the grace not to consider ourselves superior, not to believe that we are alright, not to become cynical and scornful. Let us ask Jesus to heal us of speaking ill and complaining about others, of despising this or that person. These things are displeasing to God.”
But, he reminded them, “the prayer of the tax collector helps us understand what is pleasing to God.” He “does not begin from his own merits, but from his shortcomings; not from his riches but from his poverty.”
And even though “tax collectors were wealthy and tended to make money unjustly at the expense of their fellow citizens,” he experienced “a poverty of life because we never live well in sin.” Francis said the tax collector “admitted being poor before God, and the Lord heard his prayer, a mere seven words but an expression of heartfelt sincerity.”
"Let us pray for the grace not to consider ourselves superior, not to believe that we are alright, not to become cynical and scornful."
He noted that while the Pharisee stood in front on his feet to pray, the tax collector stood far off and “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven...because he believed that God is indeed great, while he knew himself to be small.”
Moreover, he “‘beat his breast’ because the breast is where the heart is. His prayer is born from the heart; it is transparent. He places his heart before God, not outward appearances.” Indeed, Francis said, “to pray is to stand before God’s eyes, without illusions, excuses or justifications.”
At this point, the pope thanked the synod participants for having worked together with that same attitude. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said, “I am grateful that we have been able to speak to one another in these weeks from the heart, with sincerity and candor, and to place our efforts and hopes before God and our brothers and sisters.”
He told them that from the tax collector “we rediscover where to start—from the conviction that we, all of us, are in need of salvation.”
“This is the first step of the true worship of God,” Pope Francis said, “who is merciful towards those who admit their need.” On the other hand, he said, “the root of every spiritual error, as the ancient monks taught, is believing ourselves to be righteous. To consider ourselves righteous is to leave God, the only righteous one, out in the cold.”
Pope Francis emphasized that “this initial stance is so important that Jesus shows it to us with an unusual comparison, juxtaposing in the parable the Pharisee, the most pious and devout figure of the time, and the tax collector, the public sinner par excellence. The judgment is reversed: the one who is good but presumptuous fails; the one who is a disaster but humble is exalted by God.”
“The root of every spiritual error, as the ancient monks taught, is believing ourselves to be righteous."
He told the synod fathers, “If we look at ourselves honestly, we see in us all both the tax collector and the Pharisee. We are a bit like tax collectors because we are sinners, and a bit Pharisees because we are presumptuous, able to justify ourselves, masters of the art of self-justification. This may often work with ourselves, but not with God.”
He invited them to “pray for the grace to experience ourselves in need of mercy, interiorly poor.” And “for this reason too,” he said, “we do well to associate with the poor, to remind ourselves that we are poor, to remind ourselves that the salvation of God operates only in an atmosphere of interior poverty.”
The pope continued, “While the prayer of those who presume that they are righteous remains earthly, crushed by the gravitational force of egoism, that of the poor person rises directly to God.” Indeed, he said, “the sense of faith of the People of God has seen in the poor ‘the gatekeepers of heaven,’ [that] they are the ones who will open wide or not the gates of eternal life. They were not considered bosses in this life; they did not put themselves ahead of others; they had their wealth in God alone.”
In this synod, he said, “we have had the grace of listening to the voices of the poor and reflecting on the precariousness of their lives…. Yet precisely in this situation, many have testified to us that it is possible to look at reality in a different way, accepting it with open arms as a gift, treating the created world not as a resource to be exploited but as a home to be preserved, with trust in God.”
He concluded by encouraging them, “Let us pray for the grace to be able to listen to the cry of the poor: this is the cry of hope of the church. When we make their cry our own, our prayer too will reach to the clouds.”
After Mass, the synod fathers prepared to return home. Pope Francis, on the other hand, will begin writing the apostolic exhortation based on the conclusions of a synod that will be remembered not only for voting for the priestly ordination of married deacons and requesting consideration of a women’s diaconate, but especially for committing the Catholic Church to protecting the indigenous peoples and the rainforests of the Pan-Amazonian region from the exploitation and violence of new colonizers. He said he hopes to deliver that magisterial text before the end of the year.