Articles of the Month
Learning to do good
After the Lenten Spiritual Exercises concluded in Ariccia, Pope Francis resumed his customary celebration of morning Mass at Santa Marta, on Tuesday, 14 March. In his homily, the Pope focused on the conversion to which Christians are called, especially during Lent. It is a demanding path, he stressed, but one with “simple rules” which one must embrace in life, “not through words”, but concretely. And it is above all a journey in which no one is alone; all one has to do is allow “the Father who loves us” to “take us by the hand”. The Holy Father’s meditation was prompted by the day’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and the invitation to “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is 1:16-20).
Pope Francis singled out two expressions that “attract attention” in this passage; “cease to do evil and learn to do good”. In fact, he continued, this is precisely what the “journey of conversion” consists in. “It is simple”. These guidelines depend on what each person experiences personally. “Each of us does something bad every day: the Bible says that the holiest man sins seven times a day”. But it is important not to become accustomed to living a bad life, he explained. “If I do something bad, I notice it and I want to distance myself”, Pope Francis stressed. On this topic, he continued, Isaiah says you should “distance yourself from evil”, from “that which poisons the soul, which reduces the soul, which sickens you”. This, therefore, is the first step needed: to “distance yourself from evil”.
But, Francis continued, this is not enough, as the passage continues: “learn to do good”, because “it is not easy to do good: we have to learn to do so, always”, he added. Fortunately, there is the Lord who “teaches” us and therefore, we must be like children, and “learn”. Indeed, “in the journey of life, of Christian life, we learn every day. We must learn to do something each day, to be better than the day before”, Francis stressed. This then, is the “rule of conversion: to distance yourself from evil and to learn to do good.... Converting oneself is not like going to a fairy who converts us with her magic wand, no! It is a journey. It is a journey of distancing yourself and of learning”. It is a journey which requires “courage, to remove yourself” from evil and “humility to learn” to do good. And above all, it requires concrete acts, he explained.
It is no coincidence, the Pope said, that the Lord mentions several concrete examples through the words of the Prophet: “seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow”; there is an entire list of examples, but what is important, Francis said, is understanding that “we learn to do good with concrete acts, not with words”. And in fact as we read in the Gospel of the day (Mt 23:1-12) that Jesus “scolds this ruling class of the people of Israel, for they ‘preach but do not practice’; they do not know concreteness. And if there is no concreteness, there can be no conversion”, the Holy Father added.
After identifying ‘what’ to do on the path to conversion, the Pope moved on to reflect on ‘how’ we should behave. Thus, he returned to the day’s reading from Isaiah, which states: “Come now, let us reason together”. The Lord therefore, “first invites us and then he helps us”, Francis explained. He reflected on the language chosen by Jesus; “come now”, as we read in Isaiah, and “rise” as he says to the paralytic: “Rise, take up your pallet and walk”, (Mk 2:1-12) the same expression used with Jairus’ daughter and with the widow’s son at the doors of Nain.
God always invites us to rise, but he always “lends his hand”, and he does this with his characteristic humility, Pope Francis said. In the passage of Isaiah, He says, “come now, and let us reason together”. Thus, “He lowers himself to our level, as one of us; our God is humble”, the Pope added. Here then is the logic which leads to conversion: “first the invitation, then the help”, journeying with us, “to help us, to explain things to us, to hold our hand and lead us by the hand”. And “the result of this is something marvelous: ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’”, Pope Francis continued. The Lord is thus “able to perform this miracle ... of transforming us. Not from one day to the next: no, no no! With the journey, on the path”.
This, the Pontiff observed, is “the path of Lenten conversion. Simple. It is a Father who speaks, a Father who loves us. He really loves us. And he accompanies us”, Pope Francis said. The only thing the Lord asks is that we be humble, he added. In fact, Jesus states: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”. Therefore, the Holy Father concluded, “if you allow the Lord to take you by the hand and lead you forward”, and if “you rise and go with him, with this gesture of humility, you will be exalted; you will be forgiven; you will be made ‘white’”. And in this way, “we will grow as good Christians”.
Witnesses to obedience
“Yes, I am a sinner; I am worldly, I have so much worldliness in my heart, but, Lord, you can do all: give me the grace to become a witness to obedience like you, and also the grace so as not to be fearful when persecution and slander arrive, because you have told us that when we are brought before the judge, it shall be the Spirit who will tell us how we must respond”. This was Pope Francis’ prayer at Mass on Thursday morning, 27 April. He invited the faithful to recite it with open hearts.
“Let us ask for this grace”, the Pontiff insisted, because “a Christian is not witness to an idea, a philosophy, a business, a bank, a power”; rather, he or she is a “witness to obedience, like Jesus”.
At the beginning of his homily, Francis took note of the day’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (5:27-33), which “continues that dialogue of the Apostles which began with John and the leaders, with the doctors of the law”. The Pope pointed out that “after the miracle of the healing of the lame man, which sparked the fury of the leaders, the community continued to grow and the Apostles performed so many miracles, so many signs”. Thus, “people went to them; they sought them to listen to them, and they also brought the sick so that they might be healed”. Indeed, in the same chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, it is said that the sick were accompanied by people, so that “when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on some of them”. And “this was the faith of the people”.
Of course, the Pope acknowledged, “there was also trouble in the community; in the midst of this consolation there were some sly ones who wanted to further their career, like Ananias and Sapphira”. And the same sort of thing, Francis added, still happens today. “There were people who — at seeing these people of faith bring the sick there, in pilgrimage to the Apostles — would say: ‘but what ignorant people; they don’t know, these people do not know’”. This shows “the disdain for the faithful People of God who never do wrong, ever”. The same is true today, the Pope admitted. But “the Lord wanted the Church to be strong at that moment as a sign of his resurrection”.
The Acts also tell us, the Pontiff said, that “the leaders, filled with jealousy when they saw this, arrested the Apostles and put them in the common prison”. But “that night”, the Pontiff added, “as happened to Peter when he was in prison, an angel of the Lord went there; he opened the door”, calling on the Apostles to go forth and proclaim to the people. The Apostles immediately went to teach the people in the temple “at daybreak”, but the chief priests were informed, and the Apostles were called before the council. “I have said all this to show the development of the life of the Church in these early months”, the Pope explained, referring again to the first reading.
The Acts recount that “in those days”, the Pope said, “the commander and the servants brought the Apostles and set them before the council; the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly charge you not to teach in this name?’”. They obviously meant, “in Jesus’ name”. In fact, Peter and John had already been arrested and, when interrogated by the Sanhedrin, replied: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”. But the leaders had forbidden them to continue preaching. Thus comes the new accusation: the members of the Sanhedrin say to the Apostles that, despite this ban, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us”.
But here, “Peter — the same Peter who, out of fear, had betrayed the Lord that Thursday night — today, courageously responds: ‘We must obey God rather than men’”. Peter’s response, the Pope affirmed, “makes us understand what an Apostle is, what a Christian is. A Christian is a witness to obedience, like Jesus”. And in fact, “Jesus obeyed; he became man, he abased himself, he annihilated himself”. Thus, in the same manner, “a Christian is a witness to obedience, as Jesus said to the Father: ‘Here is a body; I come to do your will’. Like Jesus, who in the garden of olives asked the Father to let this cup pass from him: ‘nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done’: I shall obey”. Similarly, “a Christian is a witness to obedience”, said Francis, “and if we are not on this path to grow in witness to obedience, we are not Christians”, We must “journey down this path” to truly be witnesses “to obedience, like Jesus”. This is why a Christian “is not a witness to an idea, a philosophy, a business, a bank, a power”, but “a witness to obedience, like Jesus”.
The Pope observed that obedience is something more easily said than done, and that requires grace. “How does one become a witness to obedience; where does one study to become so?”. In fact, “only the Holy Spirit can do this”, explained Francis. Because, “to become a witness to obedience is a grace of the Holy Spirit: he is the one who does this”. It is “the same speech we heard from Jesus to Nicodemus: ‘He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life’”.
“It is from above that this comes”, the Pope stressed: “it is from the Spirit. Jesus, anointed by the Spirit, brings the Good News. Let us think of the synagogue of Nazareth; only the Spirit can make us witnesses to obedience”.
Perhaps, Francis continued, one might say, “I go to that spiritual teacher” or, “I read this book”. Yes, the Pope explained, that’s “all fine and good, but only the Spirit can change our hearts and can make us all witnesses to obedience: it is a work of the Spirit and we must ask for it. It is a grace to ask: ‘Father, Lord Jesus, send me your Spirit so that I may become a witness to obedience’, that is, a Christian”. The Pontiff indicated “the consequences for a person who is a witness to obedience”. In this regard, he said, the conclusion “of today’s first reading is clear: ‘When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them’”. Because persecution is “the consequence of the witness to obedience”. And in fact, “when Jesus lists the Beatitudes” he ends with the affirmation: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted’, insulted”.
“The Cross can not be separated from the life of a Christian”, Francis said. “The life of a Christian is not a social status; it is not just a way of living a spirituality that makes us good, which makes us a little better. This is not enough. A Christian’s life is a witness to obedience and a Christian’s life is full of slander, gossip, persecution”. And, the Holy Father concluded, “this is the message of the Church of today”. She invites us to ask ourselves if we are truly Christians, that is, “witnesses to obedience, like Jesus”.
© Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana. These articles were from Pope Francis' Meditations.--March/April 2017