ROME – Pope Francis on Thursday kicked off his second virtual Holy Week by telling priests that the cross of Jesus Christ, always present in their ministry, is the antidote to the “poison” of the devil in an “era of scandals.”

In his homily for the Chrism Mass, the pope said, “There is an aspect of the cross that is an integral part of our human condition, our limits and our frailty.”

Yet something happens on the cross “that does not have to do with our human weakness but is the bite of the serpent, who, seeing the crucified Lord defenseless, bites him in an attempt to poison and undo all his work,” he said.

This bite “tries to scandalize — this is an era of scandals — disable, and render futile and meaningless all service and loving sacrifice for others. It is the venom of the evil one who keeps insisting: Save yourself,” he said.

The pope’s words comes at a time when the Catholic Church is still recovering from the global clerical sexual abuse crisis and when the Vatican itself is involved in an ongoing trial for alleged abuse that took place between two underage seminarians at a pre-seminary attached to St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis is also in the midst of a massive attempt to clean-up Vatican finances after decades of mismanagement and scandal.

The pope said that it is in this “bite” of the devil, which tries to bring death, that God’s victory is ultimately seen, and he pointed to a reflection from Saint Maximus the Confessor, who insisted that “in the crucified Jesus a reversal took place.”

“In biting the flesh of the Lord, the devil did not poison him, for in him he encountered only infinite meekness and obedience to the will of the Father. Instead, caught by the hook of the cross, he devoured the flesh of the Lord, which proved poisonous to him, whereas for us it was to be the antidote that neutralizes the power of the evil one,” Pope Francis said.

The cross is always present in the lives of priests as they preach the Gospel, he said, but stressed that it is a cross which brings salvation, rather than death.

“Thanks to the reconciling blood of Jesus, it is a cross that contains the power of Christ’s victory, which conquers evil and delivers us from the evil one,” he said.

“To embrace it with Jesus and, as he did before us, to go out and preach it,” he said, “will allow us to discern and reject the venom of scandal, with which the devil wants to poison us whenever a cross unexpectedly appears in our lives.”

The Chrism Mass is celebrated during Holy Week and involves the blessing of the holy oils which are used during the sacraments for the upcoming year. The Mass is traditionally dedicated to the priesthood and brings together all the priests of the diocese.

Last year, the Chrism Mass was postponed due to tight restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of last year’s Holy Week liturgies for the first time were closed to the public and instead were livestreamed from inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

This year, the Chrism Mass was held at its usual time, but with Italy in the middle of its third coronavirus lockdown, it was again closed to the public and livestreamed on the Vatican’s social media channels. The same will be the case for the rest of the pope’s Holy Week liturgies in the coming days.

In his homily, Pope Francis spoke directly to priests, telling them that the cross is always present when preaching the Gospel.

He pointed to the day’s Gospel reading from Luke, in which, after Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, the people start to gossip, saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

Seemingly ambiguous comments like this can have a double meaning, with some feeling proud, and others skeptical, the pope said.

Pointing to Jesus’s response to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country,’” implies that the latter was the case in this context.

“There is the poison! Those same words will follow the Lord to the cross: ‘He saved others, let him save himself,’” Francis said.

Jesus’s words “have the power to bring to light whatever each of us holds in the depths of our heart, often mixed like the wheat and the tare,” he said, noting that this can often lead to an internal spiritual conflict.

“Seeing the signs of the Lord’s superabundant mercy and hearing the ‘beatitudes’ but also the ‘woes’ found in the Gospel, we find ourselves forced to discern and decide,” he said, insisting that the reaction to Jesus’s preaching shows that “the hour of joyful proclamation, the hour of persecution and the hour of the cross go together.”

“The preaching of the Gospel is always linked to the embrace of some particular cross. The gentle light of God’s word shines brightly in well-disposed hearts, but awakens confusion and rejection in those that are not,” he said, and pointed to several biblical parables as examples.

Noting that the cross was present in Jesus’s life even before he was born, with Joseph’s initial desire to divorce Mary quietly and Herod’s persecution, Pope Francis said the cross is never “an afterthought,” but is something Jesus saw and embraced, from the beginning to the end.

“For on the cross there can be no ambiguity! The cross is non-negotiable,” the pope said, insisting that as priests and as Christians, “We are not scandalized, because Jesus himself was not scandalized by seeing that his joyful preaching of salvation to the poor was not received wholeheartedly, but amid the shouts and threats of those who refused to hear his word.”

“We are not scandalized because Jesus was not scandalized by having to heal the sick and to set prisoners free amid the moralistic, legalistic and clerical squabbles that arose every time he did some good…We are not scandalized because the preaching of the Gospel is effective not because of our eloquent words but because of the power of the cross,” he said.

Francis recalled a time when was hearing confessions for a group of nuns on retreat while archbishop of Buenos Aires. He said that he asked one nun as her penance to pray for him, because he needed a specific grace.

In response, the nun told him, “The Lord will certainly give you that grace, but make no mistake about it: he will give it to you in his own divine way.”

“This did me much good, hearing that the Lord always gives us what we ask for, but that he does so in his divine way,” he said, adding, “That way involves the cross. Not for masochism. But for love, love to the very end.”

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