In his first visit to a Roman parish since posters went up around town on Feb. 4 charging that the pontiff lacks mercy, Pope Francis on Sunday insisted that pursuing a vendetta and talking behind people’s backs “is not Christian,” urging believers to pray for people who don’t like them.

The path to holiness, Francis said in an improvised homily, means “first of all, don’t resist evil, and don’t go on a vendetta … this is not Christian.

“Don’t give in to rancor, though that can be almost impossible,” Francis said. “Forget offenses, and when you’re struck on one cheek, offer the other.

“Evil must be defeated with good,” the pope, “with the strength of generosity.”

Francis was speaking at the Roman parish of Santa Maria Josefa del Cuore di Gesù, located on the eastern outskirts of the city.

His remarks were based on the day’s reading from the Gospel during Mass, which is drawn from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus comments on the saying “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The pontiff made no reference to the criticism he’s drawn personally in recent days, including not only the posters but also a spoof version of the Vatican newspaper accusing him of being muddled on Catholic teaching on marriage.

Instead, he offered basic pastoral and spiritual guidance on how to respond to one’s perceived enemies.

“Rancor is ugly, it’s not a little thing,” he said.

“The great wars we see today on TV and in the papers, these massacres of people and of children, all evil … it’s the same hate you may have in your heart for a relative, or your mother-in-law, or some other person,” he said.

“The will to come out on top, to make the other pay, isn’t Christian,” he said. “If all men and women everywhere would learn this, there wouldn’t be wars.”

“Bitterness, rancor, the desire for a vendetta, to make the other pay, destroys families, friendships, neighborhoods, and so much more,” the pope said.

“The magnanimity of God, who forgives everything, who’s entirely merciful, changes lives,” he said.

In that context, Francis advised that his listeners begin with “something small.”

“All of us have enemies, all of us have people who talk behind our backs, so start with that,” he said. “Take a minute, remember that they’re children of the Father. It changes one’s heart.

“Bless them, pray for those who don’t like you, and do it simply,” he said. “Maybe some rancor will stay behind, but we’re making the effort to take this path.”

As he often does, Francis posed a series of questions a hypothetical person might ask him about his guidance, always referring to himself not as “Pope” but as “Father.”

“Father, that’s hard, I want to ring their neck,” he imagines someone saying to him.

“Prayer is an antidote against hate, against those wars that begin in the home, in neighborhoods, in families,” he said. “Prayer is the power that defeats evil and leads to peace. So if you know someone doesn’t like you, pray even harder.”

“Do it once a day,” he said, “and that way we’ll go down the path of holiness and perfection.”