MILAN, Italy — During his day trip to Milan on Saturday, Pope Francis told the diocese’s priests and religious not to fear the challenges that come with their ministry nor the increasing number of empty convents, urging them instead to focus on the core of their mission: bringing Christ to his people.
“Our congregations were not born to be the mass, but a bit of salt and yeast which would have given their own contribution so that the mass grows; so that the People of God have that ‘condiment’ they were missing,” the pope said March 25.
He noted that for many years in the past, congregations moved forward with the idea that they needed to “occupy spaces” more than launching new processes and projects.
The perception then, he said, was that “ideas (or our impossibility to change) were more important than reality; or that the part (our small part or vision of the world) was superior to the whole Church.”
But today’s reality serves as a challenge, and “invites us to again be a bit of yeast and a bit of salt,” he said, asking “Can you imagine a meal with too much salt? Or a pasta that’s totally fermented? No one would eat it, no one could digest it.”
“I’ve never seen a pizza maker use a kilo of yeast and a gram of flour” to make the dough, Francis said, and urged religious to “listen to reality, to open ourselves to the ‘mass,’ to the Holy People of God, to the entire Church.”
Francis spoke to priests and religious inside Milan’s cathedral of St. Mary of the Nativity during his March 25 day trip to the city.
He kicked off the visit by stopping by the “White Houses” high-rise complex in the eastern quarter of the city, an area marked by acute poverty where many migrants, including Muslim families, live. He then headed directly to Milan’s cathedral where he met with the priests and religious.
The pope took questions from three members of the audience, including Ursuline sister Mother M. Paola Paganoni, parish priest Father Gabriele Gioia and Robert Crespi, one of the diocese’s 143 permanent deacons.
Instead of taking notes and giving an entirely off-the-cuff speech as usual during his Q&A sessions, this time Francis decided to follow a written text due to the day’s full schedule, deviating to add a few lines here and there.
The question on numbers was posed by Paganoni, who asked the pontiff how to be a prophetic sign in modern society, and to which peripheries they should go, given that religious are small in number and constitute a “minority” in the Church.
In response, the pope not only told the nun to not fret about numbers, but he also cautioned against the feeling of “resignation,” which he said can frequently creep up when looking at how few they are.
“Without realizing it, each time that we think or see that we are few, or in many cases elderly, we experience the weight, the fragility more than the splendor, and our spirit begins to corrode from resignation,” he said.
In turn, resignation can lead to the spiritual sin – also called a “disease” – of acedia, about which the Fathers of the Church issued sharp warnings since it essentially leads a person into despair, indifference and apathy regarding the faith and one’s vocation.
“Few yes, a minority yes, elderly yes, but resigned no!” he said, explaining that the lines in this regard are fine, and can only be recognized by a process of self-reflection in front of the Lord.
“When resignation takes hold of us,” he said, “we live with the imagination of a glorious past which, far from awakening the original charism, increasingly surrounds us in a spiral of existential heaviness. Everything becomes heavier and difficult to lift up.”
He warned religious to stay away from this attitude, as well as the temptation to use the empty structures to get money by turning them into hotels or looking for other “human solutions” to the problem. Doing this, he said, “hinders or deprives us of joy.”
And while he said he can’t tell them which peripheries to go to, since that’s the job of the Holy Spirit, who inspired their original charism, Francis urged religious to choose them well and reawaken “the hope spent and sapped by a society that has become insensitive to the pain of others.
“Go and bring the ‘anointing’ of Christ,” he said, telling them never to forget “that when you put Jesus in the midst of your people, they find joy…only this will render our lives fruitful and will keep our hearts alive.”
In response to Crespi’s question on what contribution deacons can give to the Church, the pope said they have “a lot to give,” specifically when it comes to managing the tensions and blessings of ministry and family life.
However, Francis also cautioned against viewing deacons as “half-priests and half-laity,” because in reality “they are neither here nor there.”
Looking at them in this way “does harm to us and does harm to them” and takes strength away from their vocation in the Church, he said, explaining that the diaconate “is a specific vocation, a family vocation that recalls service as one of the characteristic gifts of the people of God.
“The deacon is – so to speak – the guardian of service in the Church,” the pontiff said.
Because of this, his specific mission consists of “reminding all of us that faith, in its various expressions – communitarian liturgy, personal prayer, different forms of charity – and in its various states of life – lay, clerical, familial – has an essential dimension of service.”
Speaking directly to the deacons, he said they are “a sacrament of service to God and to your brothers. A vocation which like all vocations is not only individual, but lived inside the family and with the family, inside the People of God and with the People of God.”
Francis also answered Gioia’s question on what can be done in order not lose the joy of evangelizing in the face of challenges such as secularism and ministering to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic flock with different religions.
In his response, the pope said we shouldn’t be afraid of challenges, because they are “a sign of a living faith, of a living community that seeks its Lord and has eyes and hearts opened.”
Rather, what we must fear instead is “a faith without challenges, a faith believed to be complete, as if everything has been said and realized,” because without challenges, there is a danger that our faith becomes “an ideology.”
The pope also spoke of the importance of recognizing the richness of the differences in the Church throughout its history, explaining that “the Church is one in a multifarious experience.”
Although there can also be “horrors” and errors in the ways some interpret religion, he stressed the need to separate and distinguish between the “luminous aspects and the dark aspects” of each.
He also cautioned against confusing unity with uniformity and plurality with pluralism, saying that in both cases “what is being sought is to reduce the tension and remove the conflict or ambivalence to which we are subjected as human beings.”
Finally, Francis in his last point to the priest emphasized the need for pastors to offer better formation in discernment, particularly to youth.
“The culture of abundance to which we are subjected offers a horizon of many possibilities, presenting them as valid and good,” he said, noting that today’s youth are exposed to a constant “zapping” of information.
“Whether we like it or not, it’s a world in which they are inserted and it’s our duty as pastors to help them pass through this world,” he said, explaining that because of this, “it’s good to teach them to discern, so that they have the tools and elements which help them to walk the path of life without extinguishing the Holy Spirit which is in them.”
After his audience with priests and religious, Francis led pilgrims gathered outside the cathedral in praying the Angelus before heading to the city’s Casa Circondariale di San Vittore prison, which in 2012 held 1,700 detainees.
At the prison, the pope greeted employees and police officers who work at the facility before greeting the inmates themselves. He had lunch with 100 of the prisoners, before heading to Milan’s Parco di Monza to celebrate Mass and meet with young people.