ROME – In his first outdoor Mass in over two years, Pope Francis on Palm Sunday refrained from directly mentioning the conflict in Ukraine but said Jesus’ violent death on the cross is relived in each act of war and in the killing of innocents.
“When we resort to violence, we show that we no longer know anything about God, who is our Father, or even about others, who are our brothers and sisters. We lose sight of why we are in the world and even end up committing senseless acts of cruelty,” the pope said, speaking to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.
“We see this in the folly of war, where Christ is crucified yet another time,” he said, adding, “Christ is once more nailed to the Cross in mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons.”
“He is crucified in refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms. He is crucified in the elderly left alone to die; in young people deprived of a future; in soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters,” he said.
The pope’s remarks come almost 50 days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which sparked mass displacement and mounting casualties, as well as allegations of war crimes against Ukraine’s civilian population.
In recent days reports have emerged accusing Russian troops of war crimes during their occupation of Bucha, near Kyiv, and other Ukrainian towns. Photo and video images of the aftermath show civilians lying dead with their hands tied behind their backs, and people who were gunned down in the streets while attempting to evacuate, delivering food, or riding their bikes. There were also reports of rape and torture.
So far, an estimated 4.4 million refugees have left Ukraine, with the bulk fleeing to Poland and other border countries to the north, while roughly 6.5 million people have been internally displaced since fighting began.
Sunday marked not only another intervention from Pope Francis in the Ukraine war, albeit indirectly, but it was also his first public Mass since Italy’s first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. The square was filled with Mass-goers and, as is the custom for the Palm Sunday liturgy, was decorated with giant palm plants and other greenery extending toward the platform where the main altar was located.
In his homily, Pope Francis said two different logics are present in the day’s Gospel reading – a lengthy account of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death – which he said are the logic of saving oneself, as Jesus was taunted to do, and the logic of offering oneself, which Jesus did through his crucifixion and death.
Rather than giving into the taunts and demands to prove his divinity by saving himself, Jesus forgives those responsible for his suffering and, at the height of his pain as the nails were being driven in, “obeyed the most demanding of his commandments: that we love our enemies,” the pope said.
Francis urged faithful to think about people who have hurt or offended them, and to reflect on how much time is spent looking back on the wrong that was done and being angry at the person responsible.
“How often we think back and lick the wounds that other people, life itself and history have inflicted on us,” he said, saying Jesus through his actions on the cross “teaches us not to remain there, but to react, to break the vicious circle of evil and sorrow.”
With Jesus, hatred is replaced by forgiveness, he said, asking, “As disciples of Jesus, do we follow the master, or do we follow our own desire to strike back?”
“If we want to test whether we truly belong to Christ, let us look at how we behave toward those who have hurt us. The Lord asks us to respond not as we feel, or as everyone else does, but in the way he acts toward us,” which is with forgiveness and love, he said.
Jesus does not separate people into categories or label them “good” or “bad,” Pope Francis said. “We are the ones who do this, and we make God suffer.” Rather, he sees all people as “children whom he desires to embrace and forgive.”
This is evident in Jesus’ prayer for those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” he said.
Jesus’ arrest, trials, and crucifixion were clearly “premeditated,” yet instead of condemning those responsible, “Christ justifies those violent men by saying: They know not. That is how Jesus acts in our regard: he makes himself our advocate,” he said.
Francis noted that of all the people who heard Jesus offer this prayer, only one person, a criminal and so-called “Good Thief” being crucified next to him, responded.
This man “accepted God as his life was ending, and in this way, his life began anew,” he said, adding, “This is the marvel of God’s forgiveness, which turned the last request of a man condemned to death into the first canonization of history.”
Pope Francis closed his homily urging believers to have confidence that “God can forgive every sin, bridge every distance, and turn all mourning into dancing.”
“With Jesus things are never over,” and with him, “it is never too late,” he said. “Gazing upon our violent and tormented world, he never tires of repeating: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
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