At the invitation of the Italian Episcopal Conference, various leaders of the Churches of the Mediterranean region have been meeting in Bari, Italy this past week.
Pope Francis joined them on Sunday morning and offered words of encouragement and vision.
– Meeting with the bishops: “It is madness to destroy instead of building relationships”
Vocation and future of the Mediterranean
Pope Francis characterized the gathering as one of reflecting “on the vocation and future of the Mediterranean, on the transmission of the faith and the promotion of peace”.
He then noted that the process of globalization has “highlighted the role of the Mediterranean as a crossroads of interests and important social, political, religious and economic currents”.
Transmission of the faith
While the position of the countries along the Mediterranean make it a natural cultural crossroads, the Pope said that the “transmission of the faith is necessarily enriched by the heritage of the Mediterranean region”.
Christian communities have kept the faith alive through catechesis, the reception of the sacraments, popular piety and art.
He reminded the Bishops that the transmission of the faith “cannot be detached from commitment to the common good”, but must be connected to a tireless work as peacemakers.
Peace, not war
“It is madness to destroy houses, bridges, factories and hospitals, to kill people and annihilate resources, instead of building human and economic relationships”, Pope Francis said.
It is peace, he said, that is the “ultimate goal of every human society”.
The Pope continued saying “There is no reasonable alternative to peace, because every attempt at exploitation or supremacy demeans both its author and its target”.
Justice, he said, is the “indispensable condition” for building peace. In fact, he stated, “Justice is trampled underfoot when the needs of individuals are ignored and where partisan economic interests prevail over the rights of individuals and communities”.
If society becomes increasingly different to those in need, what good is its technological progress, the Pope then asked.
“For our part, brothers”, Pope Francis said, “let us speak out to demand that government leaders protect minorities and religious freedom. The persecution experienced above all – but not only – by Christian communities is a heart-rending fact that cannot leave us indifferent”.
Mediterranean’s unique vocation
Pope Francis called the Mediterranean “the sea of intermingling”, and encouraged it to live up to its vocation which includes dialogue.
“Dialogue alone enables us to come together, to overcome prejudices and stereotypes, to tell our stories and to come to know ourselves better”, he said.
He described the act of listening as “not only an act of charity but also a way of listening to the Spirit of God who surely works in others and whose voice transcends the limits in which we are often tempted to constrain the truth”.
Theology of dialogue
Pope Francis proposed that a “theology of acceptance and dialogue” can be a means of taking steps toward incorporating not only the “truths we believe” but also other “defining points of our teaching”.
This can then lead to a “renewed understanding and proclamation of the teaching of Scripture”.
In the end, “Those who together dirty their hands in building peace and fraternal acceptance will no longer be able to fight over matters of faith, but will pursue the paths of respectful discussion, mutual solidarity, and the quest for unity” Pope Francis said.
Example of the Apostle Paul
In conclusion, Pope Francis entrusted his brother bishops to “the intercession of the Apostle Paul who was the first to cross the Mediterranean”. “May his example”, he said, “show you the paths to pursue in the joyful and liberating task of handing on the faith in our own time”. And he left them with a prayer inspired by the Prophet Isaiah:
“They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Is 61:4). This is the work the Lord entrusts to you on behalf of this beloved Mediterranean region: to restore relationships that have been broken, to rebuild cities destroyed by violence, to make a garden flourish in what is now a desert, to instil hope in the hopeless, and to encourage those caught up in themselves not to fear their brothers or sisters. May the Lord accompany your steps and bless your work of reconciliation and peace.”
– Greeting to the faithful gathered outside the Basilica of Saints Nicholas: “Prayers are the strength of a Christian community”
Pope Francis on Sunday too made his way into the crypt of the Basilica of St. Nicholas and venerated the Saint’s relics which are kept under the altar and were moved to Bari in 1087 from Myra, in present-day Turkey.
The Dominican fathers, custodians of the Basilica, accompanied the Pope in this moment of recollection.
Prayer is the strength of a Christian community
Before the Eucharistic celebration in Bari, the Pope greeted the crowd in the Square in front of the Basilica. The Pope stopped for a few moments to bless children, before thanking the faithful in particular for having accompanied the work of the “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace” meeting with prayer.
“Prayers are precisely the strength, the strength of a Christian community”, the Pope said.
“The Pastors pray, but they must work during these days of reflection. But they felt accompanied and safe with your prayers. I thank you so much for this work, for this apostolate of praying, praying for the Church. Do not forget: to pray for the Church, for the Pastors… And in bad times we pray even more, because the Lord must always come to resolve problems.”
The example of the Virgin
Before the blessing, Pope Francis prayed that Mary, who – the Pope recalled – “prayed a lot during her life”, would accompany the Church on her journey at all times.
– At Mass: “The Lord asks of us the extremism of love”
After meeting with the bishops, Pope Francis then celebrated Mass. During his homily, the Pope reflected on the Gospel of Matthew 5:38-48.
Jesus goes beyond
Pope Francis began his homily explaining that Jesus went beyond the “ancient law: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” which itself was “a sign of progress, since it prevented excessive retaliation”.
By asking us to say no to violence, Pope Francis said that Jesus went “far beyond this”.
The Father loves everyone
Jesus’ words do not mean that if we practice non-violence that “the wicked will desist”, Pope Francis said.
Rather, the reason why Jesus went beyond the ancient law was so because “the Father, our Father, continues to love everyone, even when his love is not reciprocated”. Jesus practiced what He preached, the Pope continued.
“He did not point a finger at those who wrongfully condemned him and put him to a cruel death, but opened his arms to them on the cross”.
Extremists in loving
Jesus’ words are direct and clear and are the “only way” for those who call themselves Christian, the Pope continued. “‘But I say to you: love your enemies’. His words are deliberate and precise”. Jesus’ love has no boundaries, barriers, or measure, the Pope said. Yet, “How many times have we neglected that demand, behaving like everyone else!”
The only extremism that Christians are allowed is the “extremism of charity” which Jesus Himself asks of us.
Pray to learn how to love
Pope Francis admitted that it is hard to love as Jesus asks us. Yet, if it were impossible, Jesus would not have given us such a command.
“By our own effort, it is difficult to achieve; it is a grace and it needs to be implored”.
In addition to asking for God’s help in other things, or for favours, the Pope suggested that we “pray to learn how to love! We need to pray more frequently for the grace to live the essence of the Gospel, to be truly Christian. For ‘in the evening of life, we will be judged on love’ (Saint John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, 57)”.
Today choose love!
In concluding his homily, Pope Francis himself used direct and precise language:
“Today let us choose love”, he said. “Let us accept the challenge of Jesus, the challenge of charity. Then we will be true Christians and our world will be more human”.
– At the Angelus: “Listen to the cries of the weak and defenseless” in Syria
Later, during his Angelus address, the Pope’s thoughts turned to the people of north-western Syria.
Syria, a huge tragedy
He said, that while they were gathered “to pray and reflect on peace and the fate of the peoples of the Mediterranean”, a huge tragedy was taking place on the other side of this sea.
In a heartfelt appeal, Pope Francis urged the actors involved in the Syrian conflict and the international community “to silence the noise of weapons and to listen to the cries of the weak and defenseless.”
He also appealed for self-interests to be put aside “in order to safeguard the lives of civilians and the many innocent children who are paying the price.”
“Let us pray to the Lord”, the Pope said, “that he may move hearts and that all may overcome the logic of conflict, hatred and revenge in order to rediscover themselves as brothers and sisters of one Father, who makes the sun rise over the good and the bad”.
The Pontiff prayed that guided by the Holy Spirit, new relationships would be built, “inspired by understanding, acceptance and patience, thus creating the conditions for experiencing the joy of the Gospel and spreading it in every environment of life.”
The Pope’s words on Sunday came after the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Friday for an immediate cease-fire in Syria’s war-torn Idlib province to avoid he said, “an uncontrollable escalation”.
The human cost of conflict
The United Nations estimates that around 2.8 million people in northwest Syria, require humanitarian assistance. The vast majority of which are women and children.
For almost a year, Syrian ground offensives have targeted a de-escalation zone in Idlib, and this month Turkish and Syrian forces have clashed repeatedly.
Mr Guterres stressed that “this man-made humanitarian nightmare for the long-suffering people of Syria must stop. It must stop now.”
Earlier this month, during the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis launched a renewed appeal for the international community to protect the many people suffering in northwestern Syria.
Pope thanks Bishops of the Mediterranean
Before the recitation of the Marian prayer, Pope Francis thanked from the bottom of his heart “all the Bishops and all those who participated in this meeting on the Mediterranean”.
“You have contributed, he said, “to the growth of the culture of encounter and dialogue in this region so important for peace in the world.”
(With information from Vatican News)