EUROPE/SLOVAKIA – Pope Francis in Bratislava: “The Church is not at the center of the Church”

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Bratislava – “I would like to tell you an episode: some time ago I received a letter from a bishop. He wrote about a nuncio: We were under the Turks for 400 years and we suffered; then we had communism for 50 years and we suffered; but the seven years under this nuncio were worse than the other two periods”.
Pope Francis told this anecdote in one of his spontaneous addresses delivered on Monday, September 13, the second day of his apostolic visit to Slovakia. The remark caused amusement among the participants in the meeting of the Pope with bishops, priests, women religious, seminarians and catechists in St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava. “How many”, added Pope Francis, “can say the same thing about the bishop or the parish priest? It doesn’t work without freedom”. The words of the “oppressive” nuncio were added by the Pope in the passages of the official text that emphasized freedom as a distinguishing feature of any authentic Christian experience. The entire Pope’s speech revolved around the three concepts of freedom, creativity and dialogue, which the Pope identified as the three characteristics that best correspond to the “modus operandi” of the Church and her mission to preach the Gospel in the present day. “The Church” emphasized the Pope in the introductory part of his speech “is not a fortress, a stronghold, a lofty castle, self-sufficient and looking out upon the world below”, but rather it is “the community which wants to draw us to Christ with the joy of the Gospel, it is the yeast which makes the Kingdom of love and peace ferment in the dough of the world”. The correct way of the mission of the Church is to “be humble, like Jesus, who stripped himself of everything and made himself poor in order to make us rich. That is how he came to dwell among us and to care for our wounded humanity”. It is only in following Christ – suggested the Pope – that we will be able to overcome the withdrawal into oneself and the introversion of any ecclesial “self-reference”: “the center of the Church”, recalled the bishop of Rome, “is not the Church”. Let us leave the excessive concern about ourselves, about our structures and how society looks at us, behind us. Instead, let’s immerse ourselves in people’s real lives”. It is in the nature of things, the Pope continues, “that the novelty of the Gospel is conveyed by taking the ‘risk’ of freedom and creatively looking for new ways to achieve the salvation promised by Christ in the contexts and cultural conditioning in which women and men live at all times”.
“In the spiritual life and in the life of the Church, we can be tempted to seek an ersatz peace that consoles us, rather than the fire of the Gospel that disturbs and transforms us. The safe onions of Egypt prove more comfortable than the uncertainties of the desert. Yet a Church that has no room for the adventure of freedom, even in the spiritual life, risks becoming rigid and self-enclosed. Some people may be used to this. But many others – especially the younger generations – are not attracted by a faith that leaves them no interior freedom, by a Church in which all are supposed to think alike and blindly obey”. The Church of Christ – the Pope added – does not seek to dominate consciences and occupy spaces, but rather to be a “wellspring” of hope in people’s lives”. The Pope explained the characteristic of creativity using the example of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the “apostles” who preached the Gospel in the countries of Eastern Europe. “Cyril and Methodius traversed this part of the European continent and, burning with passion for the preaching of the Gospel, they even invented a new alphabet for the translation of the Bible, the liturgy and Christian doctrine”. The two holy brothers “were creative in translating the Christian message; and they drew so close to the history of the peoples they encountered that they learned their language and assimilated their culture”. Even today – the Pope added – the most urgent task of the Church among the peoples Europe consists in “finding new “alphabets” to proclaim the faith”.
In countries where a rich Christian tradition does not remain for much that “the memory of a past which no longer speaks and no longer guides the choices of existence – continued the Pope – there is no point in complaining, of taking refuge in a defensive Catholicism, of judging and accusing the world; what we need is the creativity of the gospel”. If by our preaching and pastoral care we can no longer enter by the usual way, let us try to open up different spaces, and experiment with other means. Cyril and Methodius did exactly this, and they teach us that the Gospel cannot grow unless it is rooted in the culture of a people, its symbols and questions, its words and its very life. As you know, the two brothers met with obstacles and persecution. They were accused of heresy because they had dared to translate the language of the faith. Such is the ideology born of the temptation of uniformity”.
While the true herald of the Gospel – according to the Pope in a further addition to the official text – is like the farmer, who sows and then goes home and sleeps, and does not get up continuously and obsessively to see if the seed sprouts and the plant grows, because it knows that “it is God who makes it grow”.
In the concluding part of his speech, the Pope also outlined openness to dialogue as a distinguishing feature of any authentic ecclesiastical dynamic, and recalled the image of a Church that does not aim to create a “selective group”. “The memory of the wounds – added the Pope, referring to the recent past of the Eastern European countries, “can lead to resentment, mistrust, even contempt, encouraging us to raise fences in front of those who are different from us. Wounds, however, can be passages, openings that, by imitating the wounds of the Lord, allow God’s mercy to pass, his grace that changes life and transforms us into operators of peace and reconciliation”. “As an example of this possible miracle, Pope Francis cited the figure of the Slovak cardinal Jan Korec before , which aroused applause and emotion from those present. He was a Jesuit Cardinal, persecuted by the regime, imprisoned, and sentenced to forced labour until he fell ill. When he came to Rome for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, he went to the catacombs and lit a candle for his persecutors, imploring mercy for them. This is the Gospel! It grows in life and in history through humble and patient love”.