Pope Francis’ electrifying homily to the new cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica on Feb. 15 stands out as one of the richest, most significant and powerful that he has given in his two-year pontificate. Focused on “the Gospel of the marginalized,” it provides a road map for Catholic Church leaders worldwide at this moment in history and for the Synod of Bishops on the Family in October.
He delivered the homily before 165 cardinals, senior Roman Curia officials and some 8,000 priests, religious and laypeople from all continents. He spoke after receiving (several cardinals told me) “overwhelming support” from the College of Cardinals for his ongoing effort to reform the Roman Curia.
Commenting on Jesus’ cure of the leper in Mark’s Gospel, he said, “Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!” Jesus responds “immediately” to the leper’s plea “without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences” because “for Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family!”
“This is scandalous to some people!” the pope noted, but “Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness that does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp.”
Looking at the Catholic Church leadership today in the light of what Jesus did, Francis finds it at a crossroads: “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.” There is “the thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person,” and “the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.”
Indeed, “these two ways of thinking are present throughout the church’s history: casting off and reinstating,” he said. He recalled that St. Peter and St. Paul caused scandal, faced criticism, resistance and even hostility for following the path of reinstatement. And, as Cardinal Donald Wuerl noted in his blog on Feb. 12, Francis is also being criticized for doing likewise.
“The church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement,” Francis recalled. This means “welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world.”
“The way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity,” Pope Francis stated. Rather, “It is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life.”
In healing the leper, he said: “Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the ‘older brother.’”
Francis exhorted the new cardinals “to serve the church in such a way that Christians—edified by our witness—will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it.” He ended by telling them: “We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!”
In conclusion, I think that this dynamic of casting out and reinstatement represents a powerful prism to discern the pastoral lens that Francis is calling church leaders to adopt and use in a host of pastoral inquiries, ranging from those who are divorced and remarried to those who have totally lost their moral compasses, to those who are gay, to the young who reject the church precisely because it is so often judgmental. Francis’ church is one of moral strength and standards but not one of exclusion. For exclusion warps and hurts both the excluded and, perhaps even more deeply, the excluders.