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ROME – It is well known that since the beginning of his papacy, one of Pope Francis’s greatest pet-peeves are those he describes as “hypocrites,” faithful who believe they are better than others because they say and do the right things and who follow all of the rules, but who lack a real relationship with God.
From the beginning, Francis has insisted that it is not the seemingly spiritual “elites” that are closest to God, but those who are humble and who come to God begging for forgiveness in awareness of their own sinfulness.
He drove this message home again Friday, telling faithful gathered for a special penitential service to go beyond the “hypocrisy of appearances,” and to come to God with a true awareness of their own weakness.
“People who are extremely rich in their own minds, and proud of their religious accomplishments, consider themselves better than others; they feel satisfied that they cut a good figure. They feel comfortable, but they have no room for God because they feel no need for him,” the pope said in his homily.
These people “replace God with their own ego, and although they recite prayers and perform works of piety, they never really engage in dialogue with the Lord,” he said, saying, “only those who are poor in spirit, and conscious of their need of salvation and forgiveness, come into the presence of God.”
Pope Francis spoke during his special “24 Hours for the Lord” event, which he holds annually during Lent and which is aimed at encouraging Catholics throughout the world to go to confession.
During the special 24-hour period surrounding the papal liturgy, parishes around the world are encouraged to organize a similar event and increase confession times, offering faithful the opportunity to take advantage of the sacrament.
Usually held in St. Peter’s Basilica, the event this year was held at the Roman parish of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Trionfale, which is the titular parish of American Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, in order to “better characterize the presence in parish communities” of the event.
In his homily, Pope Francis noted that many Catholic parishioners who are actively involved in parish life can be infected with a spiritual pride that makes them think they are better than others because of the activities they participate in or because they assist at Masses.
With this mentality, it’s “me, me, me,” the pope said, telling faithful present to ask themselves, “how many times do I think I’m better than others?”
“Many times, many times, ‘clean’ Catholics, those who feel justified because ‘I go to the parish,’ ‘I go to Mass’” feel justified and secure of their salvation, “but then what happened there? God’s place is occupied by the ‘I,’” Francis said.
He turned to the day’s Gospel reading from Luke in which Jesus tells the disciples a parable featuring both a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to pray. While the Pharisee stands by himself, the tax collector, according to the Gospel, stands “far off” and “would not even look up to heaven.”
Focusing on these two figures, Pope Francis said the Pharisee stood “proudly erect, like someone to be respected for his accomplishments.”
The Pharisee appeared to pray to God, and from the outside seemed both pious and devout, however, “instead of opening his heart to God, he masks his weaknesses in hypocrisy.”
“He does not await the Lord’s salvation as a free gift, but practically demands it as a reward for his merits. He strides up to the altar of God and takes his place in the front row, but he ends by going too far and puts himself before God!” the pope said.
Pointing to the figure of the tax collector, Francis noted that this man did not push his way to the front of the temple, but rather stood back and admitted his sinfulness to God at a distance, which enabled him to experience God’s love.
“God could come to him precisely because, by standing far off, he had made room for him,” the pope said, saying this is also true when it comes to relationships in the family, in society, and in the church itself.
True dialogue, he said, “takes place when we are able to preserve a certain space between ourselves and others, a healthy space that allows each to breathe without being sucked in or overwhelmed. Only then, can dialogue and encounter bridge the distance and create closeness.”
Pope Francis urged faithful to reflect on which attitude they have and told them to ask themselves, “do I think I am better than others? Do I look at others with contempt?”
There are some people who think that, “Thank God that I’m not like others…I go to Mass, I’m married in the church, these are dirty divorcees,” he said, telling believers to ask themselves, “is my heart like this?”
“Let us remember this: the Lord comes to us when we step back from our presumptuous ego. He can bridge the distance whenever, with honesty and sincerity, we bring our weaknesses before him,” the pope said.
God, he said, extends his hand to those who realize they have hit “rock bottom” and have turned back to him “with a sincere heart.”
“That is how God is. He is waiting for us, deep down, for in Jesus he chose to descend to the depths, to take the lowliest place and to make himself the servant of all,” he said, saying God is waiting for each person at this lowly place, “because he is unafraid to descend even to our inner abysses.”
God is not afraid “to touch the wounds of our flesh, to embrace our poverty, our failures in life and the mistakes we make through weakness and negligence,” he said, saying God is waiting for each person to return to him, especially in the Sacrament of Penance.
Urging faithful to make an examination of conscience, Pope Francis said the Pharisee and the tax collector are both inside of everyone, and believers must choose which attitude to adopt.
“Let us not hide behind the hypocrisy of appearances, but entrust to the Lord’s mercy our darkness, our mistakes, our wretchedness,” he said, saying Confession bridges the distance between God and the failures of one’s daily life.
As the season of Lent goes on, Francis encouraged faithful to be aware of their sins and to seek God’s mercy, and asked them to be equally forgiving to others.
“Please brothers and sisters, forgive everything, always…forgive without putting your finger in the conscience (of others),” he said, saying the Sacrament of Confession is not intended “to torture, but to give peace,” and is a place where Jesus “forgives everything: everything, everything.”
He closed by asking faithful to ask aloud for God to “be merciful to me, a sinner” for various sins and failures, and urged them to open their hearts to the joy of God’s mercy.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen