ROME – Honoring Saints Peter and Paul, the patrons of Rome, on their liturgical feast day, Pope Francis said understanding and imitating Jesus is not a matter of following doctrinal formulas or the “rigid observance” of rules and norms.
Rather, it means letting go of preconceived convictions and daily being transformed by his love in order to spread the Gospel to others, the pope said.
Speaking during a Mass for the June 29 Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Francis said the two apostles answered the most essential question for a Christian, “Who is Jesus for me?” in a very specific way: “By following him as his disciples and by proclaiming the Gospel.”
“It is good for us to grow as a Church in the same way, by following the Lord, constantly and humbly seeking him out. It is good for us to become a Church that is also outgoing, finding joy not in the things of the world, but in preaching the Gospel before the world and opening people’s hearts to the presence of God,” he said.
He urged faithful to bring Jesus everywhere they go “with humility and joy: in our city of Rome, in our families, in our relationships and our neighborhoods, in civil society, in the Church, and political life, in the entire world, especially in those places where poverty, decay and marginalization are deeply rooted.”
A public holiday for both the city of Rome and the Vatican City State, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul is observed annually on June 29 and is usually accompanied by an evening firework display put on by civic authorities.
In Catholic terms, it’s also the feast on which the pope blesses the pallium – a white woolen stole with black crosses that the leaders of archdioceses wear around their shoulders on top of their vestments while celebrating Mass – for all the new archbishops appointed in the previous year.
After being blessed by the pope, the pallium are given to the new archbishops, who will take them back to archdioceses and will formally don the garment for the first time during a special Mass in their archdioceses.
Present at the pope’s June 29, as is tradition, was a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, led by Metropolitan Job, Archbishop of Pissidia, as well as Metropolitan Athenagoras, secretary of the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Archdiocese of America, among others.
Among the new Catholic archbishops on hand was Archbishop George Leo Thomas of Las Vegas, which was erected by the pontiff as an archdiocese on May 30.
In his homily, Pope Francis noted how Jesus in the day’s Gospel reading from Matthew asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter’s response to this question, that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is not only a profession of faith, but is “An impeccable, precise, exact and, we could even say, perfect ‘catechetical’ answer.”
However, this answer came as “the fruit of a journey,” he said, noting that Peter came to this answer only after “the thrilling experience of following the Lord, walking with him and behind him” for some time.
Peter, he said, did not hesitate when Jesus called and asked him to follow, but rather followed Jesus “immediately,” leaving everything else behind.
“Peter did not tell Jesus that he would think it over; he didn’t calculate the pros and cons; he didn’t come up with alibis to postpone the decision. Instead, he left his nets and followed Jesus, without demanding any kind of guarantee beforehand,” the pope said.
By doing this, he said, Peter illustrates that “it is not enough to respond to the question – ‘Who is Jesus for me?’ – with a faultless doctrinal formula or a set of preconceived notions. No.”
“It is only by following the Lord that we come to know him each day, only by becoming his disciples and listening to his words that we become his friends and experience his transforming love,” he said.
Francis cautioned against the temptation to find excuses not to follow Jesus, including spiritual excuses such as “I am not worthy”, “I don’t have it in me”, or “What can I do?”
“This is one of the devil’s ploys: it robs us of trust in God’s grace by making us think that everything depends on our own abilities,” he said, saying Peter challenges the Church to be one that follows Jesus in humility.
“Only in this way will those farthest from us, those who often regard us with diffidence or indifference, come to realize, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, that ‘the Church is the place of our encounter with the Son of the living God and thus the place for our encounter with one another,’” he said.
Turning to the figure of Saint Paul, Pope Francis said Paul’s response to faith and to God’s intervention on the road to Damascus was to “proclaim,” spreading the Gospel throughout the world.
Prior to his conversion, while leading a fierce persecution of Christians, Paul was “caught up in the pride of his rigid observance,” but thanks to the blinding light of Jesus, “Paul came to realize how blind he had been” and devoted his life to preaching the message of Christ.
“If we look at Paul’s life, it almost seems that the more he preached the Gospel, the more he grew in the knowledge of Jesus. By preaching the Word to others, he was able to peer more deeply into the depths of God’s mystery,” the pope said.
Paul’s answer to the question of who Jesus was for him was not the result of “a privatized piety that leaves us peaceful and unconcerned about bringing the Gospel to others,” but it rather demonstrated that as Christians, “we grow in faith and in knowledge of the mystery of Christ when we preach and bear witness to him before others,” he said.
“This is something necessary also for the Church in our day,” Francis said, saying the church needs to preach “even as we need oxygen to breath. A Church that cannot live without sharing with others the embrace of God’s love and the joy of the Gospel.”
Pope Francis closed his homily telling the new archbishops receiving the pallium to imitate both Peter and Paul in being “disciples in following and apostles in preaching. Bring the beauty of the Gospel everywhere, together with all the People of God.”
He also offered a special greeting to the ecumenical delegation present, and sent personal regards to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, praying that “we advance together, in following and in preaching the word, as we grow in fraternity.”
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