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ROME – During a weekend visit to his relatives in the northern Italian town of Asti, where his father lived before immigrating to Argentina, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of going back to the roots of the faith and being active in spreading the Gospel.
Francis, who often urges faithful to remember their roots, returned to his own this weekend during a two-day visit to Asti, located in the northern Italian region of Piedmont. He made the trip to celebrate the 90th birthday of his cousin, Carla Rabezzana, whose mother, Ines, was a first cousin of the pope’s father, Mario Bergoglio.
Starting with his time as Jesuit provincial in the 1970s, the future pope maintained regular contact with Rabezzana and made a point to visit her and other relatives whenever he traveled to Rome. The two speak frequently over the phone, and to this day Rabezzana calls the pontiff “Giorgio,” the Italian version of Jorge, his given first name.
After departing the Vatican by helicopter Saturday, the pope joined Carla and other relatives for a family lunch in Portocomaro, after which he stopped by a city nursing home and then made a visit to the nearby town of Tigliole to visit another cousin.
He celebrated a public Mass for locals Sunday, after which he led faithful in praying the traditional Marian Angelus prayer and was expected to have lunch at the bishop’s residence before returning to Rome.
In his homily for Sunday’s Mass for the solemnity of Christ the King, the pope recalled how his father departed from the area for Argentina, saying he came back “to rediscover and savor my roots.”
He stressed the need to return, as Christians, to “the roots of our faith,” which he said were planted “in the barren soil of Calvary, where Jesus, like the seed that falls to the earth and dies, made hope spring up.”
Noting that the inscription hung on the cross to which Jesus was crucified called him “King of the Jews,” Pope Francis said Jesus offers the world “the complete opposite” of the traditional image of a king, adorned with fine jewels sitting on a powerful throne.
“Appareled only with nails and thorns, stripped of everything yet rich in love, from his throne on the cross he no longer teaches the crowds by his words; he no longer lifts his hands as a teacher,” but rather, “pointing a finger at no one, he opens his arms to all,” the pope said.
“That is how he shows himself to be our king: with open arms,” he said.
God, he said, allowed himself to be insulted and to suffer “so that whenever we are brought low, we will never feel alone.”
“He let himself be stripped of his garments, so that no one would ever feel stripped of his or her rightful dignity. He ascended the cross, so that God would be present in every crucified man or woman throughout history,” he said.
With his open embrace, Jesus, Francis said, “wants to embrace you, to lift you up and to save you just as you are, with your past history, your failings and your sins. He gives you a chance to reign in this life, if only you surrender to his meek love.”
When faced with the crucified Jesus, Pope Francis said Christians have two options: “there are those who become onlookers, and others who get involved.”
After Jesus was crucified, the onlookers who observed from afar without doing anything were not bad people, the pope said, but “they do not take a step forward towards Jesus, but look upon him from afar, curious yet indifferent, without really being interested, without asking themselves what they could do.”
“Yet closer to the cross there were other onlookers,” he said, noting that these were the leaders of the people, and soldiers, who mocked and ridiculed Jesus, telling him to save himself.
“Those words – ‘save yourself!’ – are contagious; they spread from the leaders to the soldiers and then to the people; the ripple of evil reaches almost everyone there. It swells, like a wave, carried forward by indifference, because all those people talk about Jesus, but not for a second do they empathize with him,” the pope said, calling this the “lethal infection of indifference.”
When this mentality seeps into the faith, believers become “rosewater Christians,” who proclaim their belief and desire for peace, “but neither pray nor care for their neighbor.”
However, Francis said there is also the choice of those who get involved, such as the so-called “good thief,” who in defending Jesus “becomes the first saint: he draws near to Jesus for an instant and the Lord keeps him at his side forever.”
Pope Francis urged faithful to imitate the good thief by trusting and turning to God, saying, “Those who practice confident trust learn to intercede; they learn to bring to God what they see all around them, the sufferings of the world, the people they meet.”
“We are not in this world just to save ourselves, but to bring our brothers and sisters into the embrace of our king,” he said, saying it is up to each person whether they will be onlookers in the faith, or whether they will get involved.
“We see the crises of the present time, the decline of faith, the lack of participation… What are we to do? Are we content to theorize and criticize, or do we roll up our sleeves, take life in hand, and pass from taking refuge in excuses to the commitment of prayer and service?” he asked.
Many people, he said, believe they know what is wrong with society, the world, and even the church, but faced with these problems, “Do we soil our hands like our God, nailed to the cross? Or do we stand with hands in our pockets, as mere onlookers?”
“Today, as Jesus, naked on the cross, unveils God and destroys every false image of his kingship, let us look to him and thus find the courage to look at ourselves, to follow the path of confident trust and intercession, and to make servants of ourselves, in order to reign with him,” he said.
Francis after Mass led faithful in praying the Angelus and thanked those who participated, particularly the youth, noting that next year the church will hold the international celebration of World Youth Day in Lisbon, with the theme, “Mary got up and went in haste.”
This is a call to young people today, he said, telling youth not to “stand still and think about yourself, wasting your life chasing comfort or the latest fashion, but aim high, get on the road, get out of your fears and reach out to those in need.”
The world today needs young people who are “non-conformists,” and who are “not slaves to a cell phone,” but are capable of changing the world, like Mary did, and bringing Jesus to others and building peace in one’s communities.
He pointed to the lack of peace throughout the world, offering prayers for “tormented Ukraine” and urging faithful to “get busy and keep praying for peace.”