Articles of the Month
A history of failed faithfulness
Acknowledging that we are sinners and asking for forgiveness is the first step in a decisive response to the question that Jesus asks each of us directly: “are you with me or against me?”. Thus, during Mass at Santa Marta on Thursday, 3 March, the Pope invited us to open ourselves to God’s unconditional mercy.
At the beginning of the first reading, Francis noted, the prophet Jeremiah (7:23-28), “reminds us of God’s pact with his people: ‘Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper’”. It is “a pact of faith”. Both readings, he continued, “tell us another story: this pact failed and today the Church makes us reflect on it; we can call it a history of failed faithfulness”. In reality, “God always remains faithful, because he cannot deny himself”. However the people amass infidelities, “one after another: they become unfaithful, they are unfaithful!”.
In the Book of Jeremiah, the people do not hold true to the pact. Scripture also tells us, Francis explained, of the “many things that God did in order to attract the hearts of his people: ‘From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day, I have sent you untiringly all my servants the prophets. Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed; they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers’”. This passage of Jeremiah ends on a strong note: “Faithfulness has disappeared”, it is “cut off from their lips”.
The “unfaithfulness of the People of God”, like our own unfaithfulness, “hardens the heart: it closes the heart!”, and it keeps out “the voice of the Lord who, as loving father, asks us to always open ourselves to his mercy and his love”. In Psalm 95 “we prayed together: hear today the voice of the Lord: harden not your hearts!”. It’s true, the Pontiff stated, “the Lord always speaks to us this way”, and “with fatherly tenderness he tells us: return to me with all your heart, for I am merciful and compassionate”.
However, “when your heart is hard you cannot understand this”, Francis explained. In fact, “God’s mercy is understood only if you are able to open your heart, so it can enter”. And this continues, it “goes on: the heart hardens, and we see the same story” in the day’s passage from the Gospel of Luke (11:14-23). “There were people, the doctors of the law, who had studied the Scriptures, who knew theology, but were very, very closed-minded. The crowd was amazed, astonished! Because the crowd was following Jesus. Someone might say: ‘But they followed him in order to be healed, this is why they were following him’”.
The reality, Francis pointed out, was that the people “trusted Jesus! Their hearts were open: imperfect, sinful, but their hearts were open”. On the other hand, “the theologians had a closed-minded attitude” and “were always looking for an explanation so as not to understand Jesus’ message”. Thus, in this specific case, as Luke writes, they said: “No, this man casts out demons in the name of the prince of demons”. They were always seeking other pretexts, the Gospel continues, “to put him to the test: they asked him for a sign from heaven”. The underlying problem, the Pope remarked, was that they were “always closed”. Therefore, “it was Jesus who had to justify what he did”.
“This is the story, the history of failed faithfulness”, Francis said, “the history of closed hearts, of hearts that would not let God’s mercy enter, which had forgotten the word ‘forgiveness’ — ‘Forgive me, Lord!’ — simply because they did not feel they were sinners: they felt they were the judges of others”. And this history goes on for centuries. “Jesus explains this failed faithfulness with two clear words in order to end the discussion with these hypocrites: “Whoever is not with me is against me”. In the language Jesus used, the Pope said, it is clear: “either you are faithful, with your heart open to God who is faithful to you, or you are against him: ‘Whoever is not with me is against me’”. Someone may think that there is perhaps “a middle ground for negotiations”, to escape the clarity of Jesus’ words, “either you are faithful or you are opposed”. In essence, Francis replied, “there is a way out: confess, sinner!”. Because “if you say, ‘I am a sinner’, your heart opens, God’s mercy enters, and you begin to be faithful”.
Before continuing the celebration, the Pontiff advised that we ask “the Lord for the grace of faithfulness”, knowing that “the first step” on the “path of faithfulness is feeling we are sinners”. Indeed, “if you do not feel you are a sinner, you have started off wrong”. Therefore, Francis concluded, “let us ask for the grace that our hearts not harden, that they be open to God’s mercy”, and ask for “the grace of faithfulness”. Let us also ask for the “grace to ask forgiveness” when we find we are unfaithful.
Docile and joyful
“Speak Lord, I am listening”. The Pope suggested we address God with these simple words of Samuel “when we have doubt, when we don’t know or when we simply want to pray”. The words are also an antidote to surrendering to the temptation to resist the Holy Spirit. During Mass at Santa Marta on Thursday, Francis recommended that we be not afraid when the Holy Spirit is at work and upsets our plans. Because it is joy, certainly not adhering to the letter of the law, that characterizes the life of a Christian who is docile to the work of the Spirit.
Francis began his homily by referring to the day’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40), in which “the Holy Spirit” is “the main character”. It isn’t Philip or the Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the queen. After all, the Pope added, “in the readings the Church has offered us in these days, it is clearly seen that it is the Spirit, the One who does things. It is the Spirit who creates the Church and makes her grow; this is the work of the Spirit”.
“In recent times”, the Pope said, “the Church has shown how capable it is of resisting the Spirit: closed, hardened, foolish hearts that resist the Spirit”. There were people who, even on seeing things — such as “the healing of the lame man by Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple; the words and the great things done by Stephen — they were closed to these signs of the Spirit, and they resisted the Spirit”. Moreover, they even “tried to justify this resistance with a so-called faithfulness to the letter of the law”.
Francis continued, “today, and tomorrow too, the Church proposes the opposite: it is not resistance to the Spirit but docility to the Spirit that is the proper attitude of a Christian”. It is a matter of “being docile to the Spirit, and this docility enables the Spirit to operate and go forth to build the Church”.
Returning to the day’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Francis highlighted that we are dealing with “a bishop, Philip, one of the Apostles, busy as all bishops are, and certainly he had plans to work that day”. But “the Spirit said: ‘Rise and do this instead, leave the episcopate and go there’”. Philip “obeyed: he was docile to the voice of the Spirit” and so, “left all that he had to do that day and went” where he was told”. So it was that the Spirit called him to go “to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza”, giving him no explanation: “Go!”.
Along the road, Philip met “a gentleman, an Ethiopian proselyte: he was the minister of the economy, a great man of the queen of Ethiopia”. That man, the Pope explained, “had come to worship God: he was worshipping God and reading Scripture”. It was once again the Spirit who told Philip to go up to that chariot. And again, “he obeyed, docile to the word of the Lord”.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us that “Philip heard him reading from Isaiah, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’. But his interlocutor answered him: ‘No, how can I, unless someone guides me?’”. And thus, “he invited Philip to climb aboard the chariot and Philip explained what the prophet Isaiah had prophesied: namely, Jesus Christ”. In a word, Philip “explained the salvation of the Gospel”.
“Perhaps this explanation was a bit long”, the Pope stated, “but they were on a journey, surely talking. The Ethiopian asked questions, Philip answered, and the Spirit also worked in the heart of the Ethiopian man”. Indeed, the Spirit “offered the gift of faith: this man felt something new in his heart”. Again, the Pope said, “continuing along the road, in that discussion, they came to some water and, being a practical man, he had a very practical, concrete profession, he said: ‘See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?’”. Thus, “he accepted the faith and requested Baptism: he was docile! Docility to the Spirit!”.
This is the story of “two men: one preached the Gospel and the other knew nothing of Jesus”, but in whom “the Spirit had sown the seed of healthy curiosity, not the curiosity of gossip”. And “the Spirit gave him the gift of faith”. Francis then explained that “after the ceremony of this Baptism, we might think that they both continued to talk, to speak. No, when they came up out of the water”, Scripture says, “the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip: right away! And the Eunuch saw him no more”. The Acts tell us that “Philip, docile, was found at Azotus, preaching the Gospel”. Of course, this “had not been in his plans, but he was docile to the Spirit”. So, “whatever happened to the Eunuch? He saw him no more! Did he weep? No!”. In fact, Scripture tells us that he “went on his way rejoicing”. This is “the joy of the Spirit, of docility to the Spirit”.
In recent days, Francis recalled, “we heard what resistance to the Spirit does”. Today, instead, “we have an example of two men who were docile to the voice of the Spirit”. The distinguishing sign “is joy”, because “docility to the Spirit is a source of joy”. This is why it is important to tell ourselves, “I would like to do something, this thing, but I feel that the Lord is asking something else of me: I will find joy there, where there is the call of the Spirit!”.
The Pope also proposed “a beautiful prayer to ask for this docility”. We find it, he explained, “in the First Book of Samuel: young Samuel was asleep and he heard the call and thought it was the priest, Eli”. So, Samuel “arose right away and went to him: ‘Here I am!’”. But Eli told him that he hadn’t called. Samuel, Francis recalled, then “returned to bed” but he heard the call again for a second and then a third time. Eli, said the Pope, “was not a good priest, but he understood the things of God: he perceived that it was the Lord who called!”. Therefore he said to Samuel: “Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears’”. This, the Pope said, “is a beautiful prayer to repeat: ‘Speak Lord, I am listening’”.
© Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana. From the Meditations of Pope Francis.