ROME – In his opening Mass for the keenly anticipated Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Pope Francis said modern global challenges require the Church to be a warm and welcoming presence, free of the politicking, ideology and ‘rigidity’ that he said have divided much of the world.
Speaking to faithful and participants gathered for the month-long synod discussion during his Oct. 4 Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the pope said that as the synod begins, “We do not need a purely natural vision, made up of human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles.”
“We are not here to carry out a parliamentary meeting or a plan of reformation. No. We are here to walk together with the gaze of Jesus, who blesses the Father and welcomes those who are weary and oppressed,” he said.
Set to take place Oct. 4-29, the synod will reflect on the topic of “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is focused on how to transform Church life and structures to make Catholicism more dialogic and collaborative.
Pope Francis has often complained about the prominence of polarization and ideology within the Church, and has promoted a climate of confidentiality for the synod intended to avoid the formation of political parties or blocs.
A reminder of the political divisions that have run through preparations for the synod came earlier this week, when five conservative cardinals revealed that they had submitted a list of critical questions to the pope known as dubia. In the pope’s responses, he signalled a cautious opening to the blessing of same-sex unions and a seemingly firm “no” to women’s ordination.
In his Oct. 4 homily for the opening Mass of the synod, which coincided with the feast of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and which was concelebrated by the 21 new cardinals elevated during Saturday’s consistory, he said the Gospel reading spoke of a difficult moment in Jesus’ ministry, as he had passed through various cities and towns preaching and performing miracles, yet no one was converted.
However, rather than being sad, Jesus instead prays and thanks God the Father for having “revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom of God to the simple,” he said.
In what was likely a moment of desolation, Jesus “has a gaze capable of seeing beyond: he praises the wisdom of the Father and is able to discern the good that grows unseen, the seed of the Word welcomed by the simple, the light of the Kingdom of God that shows the way even in the night,” he said.
Jesus’s gaze is first of all one that blesses, he said, noting that although Jesus had experienced rejection and the “hardness of heart” of those he met, he “does not let himself be imprisoned by disappointment, he does not become bitter, he does not cease to praise; his heart, founded on the primacy of the Father, remains serene even in the storm.”
With this gaze, Jesus invites Catholics to be a Church “with a glad heart,” and which “contemplates God’s action and discerns the present.”
It is also an invitation to be a Church which “amid the sometimes agitated waves of our time, does not lose heart, does not seek ideological loopholes, does not barricade itself behind preconceived notions, does not give in to convenient solutions, does not let the world dictate its agenda,” he said.
Pope Francis quoted Saint John XXIII, who in his opening speech for the Second Vatican Council said the Church must never relinquish “the sacred patrimony of truth” that comes from the past, but at the same time, it must also look to the present, “to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”
Jesus’s gaze invites the Church to face modern challenges not with “a divisive and contentious spirit,” but rather one of communion and humility, he said.
“We exist only to bring Him to the world…We do not want earthly glory; we do not want to make ourselves attractive in the eyes of the world,” the pope said. Rather, he said the Church must reach out and bring God’s consolation to the world in order to bear witness to God’s love “in a better way and to everyone.”
The primary task of the synod, he said, is to refocus the Church on God and to be a community that “looks mercifully at humanity.”
What God wants, he said, is “a Church that is united and fraternal, that listens and dialogues; a Church that blesses and encourages, that helps those who seek the Lord, that lovingly stirs up the indifferent, that opens paths in order to draw people into the beauty of faith. A Church that has God at its center and, therefore, is not divided internally and is never harsh externally.”
Francis said Jesus’s gaze was also a welcoming one, and that those who believe themselves to be wise fail to recognize God’s work, because “he reveals himself to the little ones, the simple, the poor in spirit.”
This is why Jesus throughout his life most often welcomed the weakest, the suffering, and the discarded, he said, saying Jesus in doing so invites faithful to also “be a welcoming Church.”
“In such a complex time as ours, new cultural and pastoral challenges emerge that call for a warm and kindly inner attitude so that we can encounter each other without fear,” he said.
Pope Francis voiced hope that the synod discussion would help the Church “grow in unity and friendship with the Lord in order to look at today’s challenges with his gaze,” and to be a Church “with a gentle yoke, which does not impose burdens,” but which repeats the Gospel invitation, “Come, you who are weary and oppressed.
“Come, you who have lost your way or feel far away, come, you who have closed the doors to hope: the Church is here for you!” he said.
In the face of modern challenges and difficulties, Jesus’s gaze of blessing and welcome “prevents us from falling into some dangerous temptations: of being a rigid Church, which arms itself against the world and looks backward; of being a lukewarm Church, which surrenders to the fashions of the world; of being a tired Church, turned in on itself,” the pope said.
Pointing to the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the pope noted that the saint “in a time of great struggles and divisions, between temporal and religious powers, between the institutional Church and heretical currents, between Christians and other believers, did not criticize or lash out at anyone.”
Pope Francis closed his homily alluding to those who have been critical or skeptical of the synod, saying that if faithful or even bishops have expectations or even fears regarding the synod, “Let us continue to remember that it is not a political gathering, but a convocation in the Spirit; not a polarized parliament, but a place of grace and communion.”
“The Holy Spirit often shatters our expectations to create something new that surpasses our predictions and negativity. Let us open ourselves to him and call upon him, the protagonist, the Holy Spirit. And let us walk with him, in trust and with joy,” he said.
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