ROME – In 1935, an aspiring painter and member of a prominent Jewish family in Turin by the name of Carlo Levi was sentenced to exile in Italy’s neglected southern region of Basilicata for his anti-fascist sentiments. Basilicata, at the time, was considered more or less Italy’s equivalent of Siberia, which is to say, a prison all by itself.
Levi wrote a memoir, the title of which is taken from a popular saying among inhabitants of the region: “Christ stopped at Eboli,” a town just south of Naples. The idea was that Christianity had never really reached the Basilicata, and nor did democracy, the rule of law, or any other traces of a civilized world. People felt abandoned, ignored, and forgotten.
Inside the Basilicata is a small town called Matera, roughly 80 miles east of Eboli. With its Sassi neighborhoods literally carved out of rock, Matera was once defined in 1948 as a “national shame” for the poverty and neglect in which people lived. While some of that has changed, Italy’s southernmost regions still trail behind the affluent north in most indices of development.
However, while many inhabitants of the Basilicata might still argue that Christ did stop at Eboli, Pope Francis this weekend went beyond.
On Sunday, Sept. 25 – the same day Italians went to the polls in general elections expected to yield national leadership at odds with much of Francis’s social agenda – the pope traveled to Matera to close a national Eucharistic Congress, which was held in the city under the theme, “Let us return to the taste of bread.”
While there, the pope offered a reflection on loving the poor based on the day’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus tells the parable of a rich man who dons opulent robes and dines on lavish feasts while ignoring a poor man, Lazarus, begging at his door.
In his homily, Francis said the reading is reflective of the fact that, “bread is not always shared on the table of the world; the perfume of communion does not always emanate; (bread) is not always broken in justice.”
There is a contradiction between the rich man showing off his wealth and the poor man begging, the pope said, saying the rich man “is not open to relationship with God: he thinks only of his wellbeing, of satisfying his needs, of enjoying life.”
Noting that this man is not named in the Gospel but is simply referred to as “the rich man,” Francis said he has lost his identity, which is based “only on the wealth he possesses.”
“How sad it is that even today this reality, when we confuse what we are with what we have, when we judge people by the wealth they have, by the titles they exhibit, by the roles they hold, or by the brand of the clothing they wear,” he said, saying attachment to these things “leaves us with empty hands.”
The poor man, on the other hand, is named Lazarus, whose name, the pope said, means “God helps.”
Even in his poverty and marginalization, Lazarus “can keep his dignity intact because he lives in relationship with God. In his very name there is something of God and God is the unshakeable hope of his life,” the pope said.
“Here then is the permanent challenge that the Eucharist offers to our life: to adore God and not ourselves. Putting him at the center and not the vanity of oneself,” he said.
Francis urged attendees to keep in mind that “only the Lord is God and everything else is a gift of his love.”
The Eucharist, Pope Francis said, is “the sacrament of love par excellence,” because Jesus offers himself to humanity “and asks us to do the same, so that our life may be ground wheat and become bread that feeds our brothers and sisters.”
Referring to the day’s Gospel reading, the pope noted how it was not until the rich man died and had to give an account of his life that he took notice of Lazarus. However, by then it was too late, he said, noting that Abraham told the rich man that there was “a great abyss” between him and Lazarus.
“Our eternal future depends on this present life: if we dig an abyss now with our brothers and sisters, we ‘dig the grave’ for later; if we raise walls against our brothers and sisters now, we remain imprisoned in loneliness and death even afterwards,” Francis said.
Pope Francis voiced his desire for a “eucharistic” church composed of women and men “who break like bread for all those who chew on loneliness and poverty, for those who are hungry for tenderness and compassion, for those whose lives are crumbling because the good leaven of hope is lacking.”
The pope closed his homily with a word of encouragement: “When hope is extinguished and we feel inside of us the loneliness of heart, the internal fatigue, the torment of sin, the fear of not succeeding, let us return again to the taste of bread.”
After concluding the Mass, Pope Francis led attendees in the praying of the Angelus and offered prayers for what he said are some of “the most urgent needs” in the world today. Specifically, he prayed for Myanmar, which for over a year has been ravaged by violent conflict following a military coup.
In his remarks, the pope noted that among the most recent victims of the fighting are at least 11 children who died when their school was bombed. “May the cry of these little ones not go unheard! These tragedies must not happen!” he said.
Francis also offered prayers for peace in Ukraine, asking that political leaders “obtain willpower” to quickly find “effective initiatives leading to the end of the war,” and for faithful in the diocese of Mamfe, Cameroon, where several people were recently kidnapped.
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