ROME — A pope whose most famous soundbite is “Who am I to judge?” was at it again on Saturday, insisting that the mission of Christianity isn’t to “eternally condemn” anyone, but rather to offer God’s mercy to “every person who asks for it with an honest heart.”
That mercy, he said, will often seem unfair to people excessively focused on rules.
“Christian morality isn’t a titanic, voluntary, solitary effort against the world,” the pope said. “Christian morality is the answer given by a surprising mercy, unpredictable, [and] considered ‘unjust’ by human criteria.”
Francis said that message of mercy is especially directed to those who are alienated or distant from the faith.
“The way of the Church is to leave the building in search of those who are far away,” the pontiff said, repeating a point he made to 20 new cardinals installed last month.
Francis’ comments came in an address to more than 80,000 members of the Communion and Liberation movement, a group of mostly lay Catholics founded in Italy in the mid-20th century by the late Rev. Luigi Guissani.
As it happens, the encounter fell on the 50th anniversary of the first Mass ever publicly celebrated by a pope in a language other than Latin. On March 7, 1965, Blessed Pope Paul VI said a Mass in the vernacular rather than in the customary Latin, as the Second Vatican Council had approved two years earlier.
In that spirit, Francis told the members of Communion and Liberation that the faith is not a fixed set of ideas and attitudes to be defended, but rather a message of mercy that always has to be adapted to new circumstances.
“Christianity is never realized in history as a fixity of positions to be defended, which relate to the new as pure antithesis; Christianity is the principle of redemption, which assumes the new,” Francis said, quoting Guissani.
On Saturday afternoon, Francis was expected to go to the Roman church of “Ognissanti” (All Saints) to commemorate the anniversary of the non-Latin Mass.
Communion and Liberation is one of more than 120 lay movements recognized by the Vatican, virtually all founded in the 20th century. Today it’s present in roughly 80 countries, including a small footprint in the United States, where its best-known exponent was the late Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, who died in 2014.
While he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis publicly praised Giussani, presenting his books at literary fairs in Argentina, but the two never met. On Saturday, Francis thanked Giussani for his books and articles that he said had been “helpful to his priestly life.”
Communion and Liberation is often seen in Italy as a fairly “conservative” movement, but members insist it doesn’t have a political stance.
“Communion and Liberation proposes that our faith is something that has to transcend our concrete political commitments,” said Rodrigo Guerra, a Mexican philosopher and member of the movement.
Appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace in 2012, and also a lay participant of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family last October, Guerra said Giussani presented Christ as a path and call to live in the way Jesus suggested, welcoming all, and embracing every human reality despite however wounded people may be.
“Giussani helped us rediscover a no-moralizing way of being Christians,” Guerra told Crux on March 6.
Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were both enthusiasts about the lay movements, seeing them, in part, as a way to fill a pastoral gap in the European church, where parish life has long been in decline.
Francis seems appreciative as well. Quoting Benedict, he said of Communion and Liberation that the movement wasn’t born from the organizational will of the Church’s hierarchy, but derives “from an impulse of the Holy Spirit.”
According to Guerra, Francis relates to the spiritual path of Communion and Liberation.
“We help each other remember that God’s mercy is greater than rules, virtues, and coherence,” he said, “so Christian life becomes more possible and happier.”
As Francis put it on Saturday, “Christian morality isn’t never falling down, but always getting back up thanks to [Christ’s] hand that holds us.”