by Russell Pollitt SJ
Last Sunday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Lisbon, Portugal, to mark the end of World Youth Day (WYD). 1.5 million people were in attendance – something the secular media said very little about.
More important than the numbers, was what Pope Francis said. When he officially launched the gathering, he told the vast crowd, “There is room for everyone in the church, and, whenever there is not, please, we must make room, including for those who make mistakes, who fall or struggle”.
This is not the first time Pope Francis has said this. Right from the beginning of his papacy, he has emphasised that the Church ought to be a hospitable, welcoming place of refuge where people find mercy and healing.
The Holy Father told pilgrims at WYD that he had received letters from young people who had not felt welcome in the Church. He told the crowd: “The Lord does not point a finger, but opens wide his arms: Jesus showed us this on the cross. He does not close the door but invites us to enter; he does not keep us at a distance but welcomes us.”
It is well known that Pope Francis’ message of welcome and mercy has received firey opposition from his critics. The Catholic Church seems poised on schism as anti-Francis and pro-Francis Catholics make a cacophony of noise – sometimes the most unchristian of noise!
In an in-flight press conference on the return leg to Rome, the Pope was fearless in driving home this message again. The Pope responded to a journalist’s question asking him how he could say that the Church is welcoming when LGBTQ people and women often feel excluded. “The Lord is clear,” the Pope said, “The sick, the elderly, the young, old, ugly, beautiful, good and bad” are all welcome in the Church.
At our particular point in history, as church attendance continues to decline, caused by several complex colliding issues, one of the things it is in our power to do, is build communities of welcome. People are searching for purpose, for meaning, for the Divine. However, many are no longer searching in our church community because, for one, they do not feel welcome. This is not the only reason, but it is an important one we ought to consider. Many religious people have taken flight into inhospitable laagers in a world that has become increasingly fearful. They take some solace in inflicting wounds on others, especially the pain of exclusivity, which says: ‘You are not good enough!’
Pope Francis invites us again to examine our communal lives. Are our communities, our parishes, places of hospitality for all? Do we have doorkeepers who only let those they like in? Do we preach a hope-filled message inviting people to the fullness of life, or do we preach a litany that divides and excludes? How about the language we use? Language is powerful as it is the vessel through which we convey meaning. Is it inclusive? Are certain ‘groups’ or ‘types’ of people more or less welcome than others?
The danger is that, in our communities, some seem to assume that they know the mind of God. It would be helpful to take heed of the wisdom of St Ignatius Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises, he says that, at all times, we should “let the Creator deal directly with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord” (#15).
All will not accept Pope Francis’ message of welcome. Jesus’ message of welcome was rejected by some too. However, ultimately it is about our ability to trust God. If we think we have to exclude, then, deep down, there seems to be a fearful suspicion: we don’t think we can trust God’s ability to deal with people.