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ROME – Amid a period in which conflicts in the Catholic Church, including among its hierarchy, have seemed to burst into full public view following the death of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis called on clergy Thursday not to “play the game of the enemy” by becoming “even unintentionally, instruments of division.”
The “enemy,” Francis said, referring to the devil, “never comes out into the open, loves gossip and insinuation, foments parties and cliques, fuels nostalgia for times past, distrust, pessimism and fear.”
“Let us take care, please, not to defile the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the robe of Mother Church with disunity, polarization or lack of charity and communion,” the pontiff said during his Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, which commemorates the foundation of the Catholic priesthood.
The Mass follows a three-day hospital stay for the pontiff last week, having been admitted last Wednesday for a respiratory infection and bronchitis. After receiving an infusion of antibiotic treatments, the pope was discharged Saturday and presided over the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square the next day, kicking off his Holy Week events.
Francis, who appeared energetic Thursday morning and departed from his prepared text on several occasions to offer off-the-cuff additions, also suffers from sciatica and had part of a lung removed due to a strong bout of pneumonia when he was a young Jesuit, making respiratory issues particularly concerning for the 86-year-old. He also suffers from chronic knee pain which for the past year has confined him to the use of a wheelchair or a cane.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Saturday that the pope’s Holy Week plans were unchanged, and that in spite of his recent hospitalization, he would preside over his liturgies with a cardinal assisting him at the altar.
Thursday morning’s Chrism Mass, when the holy oils used in the church’s sacraments throughout the year are blessed and which is traditionally dedicated to clergy, was celebrated at the altar by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome.
In addition to his health troubles, the past few months have been especially tumultuous for Francis following the death of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, on New Year’s Eve. Since Benedict’s passing, the perennial fault lines in Catholicism seemed to become both more protracted and more public.
In a memoir and series of media interviews, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the priest secretary to Benedict XVI, identified a number of differences between Francis and his predecessor, including over the traditional Latin Mass and Francis’s 2006 document Amoris Laetitia. Gänswein also openly discussed his own consternation over being effectively fired by Francis as Prefect of the Papal Household in 2020.
Reports that Francis then ordered Gänswein to vacate the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery on Vatican grounds where Benedict had resided, and is now preparing to dispatch him to Costa Rica as a papal envoy, have added to perceptions of a rift.
In parallel fashion, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller released an interview book with veteran Italian journalist Franca Giansoldati, in which Müller accused Francis of having a “magic circle” around him of theologically dubious advisors, of being inconsistent in his approach to sex abuse cases, and of being sometimes impulsive in his judgments.
Some observers have suggested that the open criticism of Francis by figures close to Benedict amount to the declaration of a “civil war” in Catholicism. “War of the Popes,” screamed one Sunday headline in the Italian newspaper Libero: “The posthumous accusations of Ratzinger at Bergoglio.”
In Rome itself, a series of billboards protesting Francis’s decision to restrict celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass have been displayed across the city, and will remain up through the end of Holy Week.
In this context, Pope Francis, after being wheeled into St. Peter’s Basilica and positioned to the side of the main altar, focused his homily on the role of the Holy Spirit in the faith and in the priesthood, saying the Holy Spirit helps priests through the ups and downs of their lives, especially in moments of weakness or crisis, and it also brings “harmony wherever it is lacking.”
“The Holy Spirit is harmony” and is the force “that binds everything together,” he said, saying the Holy Spirit “awakens the diversity of charisms and brings them into unity; he creates concord based not on uniformity, but on the creativity of charity.”
Harmony comes from “multiplicity,” he said, saying the Holy Spirit “is in himself concord, communion and harmony.”
“To create harmony is what the Spirit desires, above all through those upon whom he has poured out his anointing,” he said, stressing the need to build harmony “among ourselves” as priests, saying that to do this, “is not simply a good way of improving the functioning of ecclesial structures, or a matter of strategy or politeness: it is an intrinsic demand of the life of the Spirit.”
“We sin against the Spirit who is communion whenever we become, even unintentionally, instruments of division; and whenever we play the game of the enemy,” he said, insisting that the Holy Spirit always prefers “the shape of community.”
This community, he said, implies a “willingness with regard to one’s own needs, obedience with regard to one’s own tastes, humility with regard to one’s own claims.”
“Harmony is not one virtue among others; it is something more,” he said, and urged priests to help one another to preserve harmony among themselves, urging clergy to reflect on whether, in their words, comments, and writings, “is there the seal of the Spirit or that of the world?”
“Do I think about the kindness of the priest: if people see, in us too, people who are dissatisfied and discontented, who criticize and point fingers, where else will they find harmony?” he said, lamenting the many people who “fail to approach us, or keep at a distance, because in the Church they feel unwelcomed and unloved, regarded with suspicion and judged.”
“In God’s name, let us be welcoming and forgiving, always! And let us remember that being irritable and full of complaints does not produce good fruits, but spoils our preaching, since it is a counter-witness to God, who is communion in harmony,” he said.
Francis closed his homily thanking priests for their service and for the “hidden good you do,” and for the compassion and forgiveness they offer in God’s name despite expending great efforts with often little recognition.
“May the Spirit of God, who does not disappoint those who trust in him, fill you with peace and bring to conclusion the good work he began in you, so that you may be prophetic witnesses of his anointing and apostles of harmony,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen