A papal call for mercy, and a warning against a ‘closed caste’ church
Updated: Feb 19
Pope Francis today delivered an impassioned defense of what has become a leitmotif of his pontificate – the church of mercy that reaches out to the marginalized vs. the church of rules that closes itself into a “closed caste.”
The pope’s homily was addressed to a group of new cardinals gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. But one had the impression that it was also aimed at in-house critics who have questioned some of Francis’ statements and who have warned against an over-emphasis on mercy at the expense of doctrinal truth.
The pope said the Gospel account of Jesus’ curing of the leper was, in a sense, a model for how the church must operate with compassion to “reintegrate the marginalized” – including fallen-away Catholics – even when it provokes criticism.
“Jesus does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized by any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity,” the pope said.
The pope said the modern church, too, stands at a crossroads of two ways of thinking: “We can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.” The thinking of the “doctors of law,” he said, would remove danger by casting out the sick or sinful person. But God’s way is to show mercy and accept this person, turning condemnation into salvation.
That has always been the church’s way, too, he said. This means the church must “leave her four walls behind” and not only welcome people who knock at its doors, but also seek out those on the “outskirts” of life, including the sick, the suffering and the spiritually alienated. It also means “rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world,” he said.
The pope told the cardinals: “Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honor!”
He asked them to help make sure the modern church turns to the outcast, resisting the temptation to become “a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it.”
They should see Jesus, he said, in everyone who is excluded – the sick, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the persecuted, and even in “those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith.”
“Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” he said at the close of his remarks.
The homily was a capsule version of the vision that inspires so many of Pope Francis’ actions to date, including his consideration of new policies for divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, or his efforts to make the Vatican bureaucracy more responsive to real-world problems.
With most of the world’s cardinals in attendance, the pope made it clear that this vision of the church’s mission is not something he invented, but is rooted in the words and actions of Christ.