ROME – Celebrating the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Francis on Tuesday said the Church can only be credible if it is “free” from “dubious associations with power.”

Saying that the two saints had experienced through Christ a love that healed them and set them free, Francis said that the same needs to happen in the Church.

“We too have been touched by the Lord; we too have been set free,” the pope said during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday. “Yet we need to be set free time and time again, for only a free Church is a credible Church.”

Peter, once a fisherman, became one of the 12 Apostles and is considered the first Roman pontiff. Paul, who once persecuted Christians, was responsible for penning most of the New Testament after his conversion. Both men died in Rome, and are the co-patrons of the city.

“Like Peter, we are called to be set free from a sense of failure before our occasionally disastrous fishing,” Francis said. “To be set free from the fear that paralyzes us, makes us seek refuge in our own securities, and robs us of the courage of prophecy.”

“Like Paul, we are called to be set free from hypocritical outward show, free from the temptation to present ourselves with worldly power rather than with the weakness that makes space for God, free from a religiosity that makes us rigid and inflexible; free from dubious associations with power and from the fear of being misunderstood and attacked,” the pope continued.

The pontiff said that Paul, named Saul before being called by God, was “also set free from the religious fervor that had made him a zealous defender of his ancestral traditions and a cruel persecutor of Christians.”

The pope said that Paul’s formal religious observance and the “intransigent defense of tradition” had hardened his heart instead of making him open to the love of God. Despite setting him free, Francis said, God didn’t spare him “the frailties and hardships” that rendered his mission to evangelize more fruitful, from physical illness to violence and persecution.

The Mass was attended not only by most of the cardinals who work in the Roman Curia – the Church’s central government – but also by the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, a rarity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the ceremony, Pope Francis blessed the palliums — woolen bands worn over the shoulders — that will be given to the 34 metropolitan archbishops he named during the past year.

Although under normal circumstances all the archbishops would have been invited to concelebrate the Mass with the pope, due to coronavirus restrictions, only 12 of them were in attendance.

Also present in the basilica was a delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, that Francis welcomed on Monday.

Peter and Paul, Francis said during his homily, give us “the image of a Church entrusted to our hands, yet guided by the Lord with fidelity and tender love. A Church that is weak, yet finds strength in the presence of God.”

Such a Church, the Argentine pontiff said, is capable of offering the world the freedom that the world cannot give itself: “Freedom from sin and death, from resignation, and from the sense of injustice and the loss of hope that dehumanizes the lives of the women and men of our time.”

“Let us ask: To what extent do our cities, our societies and our world need freedom?” Francis said. “How many chains must be shattered and how many doors long shut must be opened! We can help bring this freedom, but only if we first let ourselves be set free by the newness of Jesus, and walk in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”

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