Francis calls on Catholics to share everything, be 'islands of mercy'

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has called on Catholics to use the upcoming Lenten season to tackle what he has called a "globalization of indifference" by practicing acts of charity and becoming "islands of mercy" for brothers and sisters in need.

Reflecting on the sense of communion that Catholics have, Francis has also said that those in the church should share their possessions with one another.

"The Church is the communio sanctorum not only because of her saints, but also because she is a communion in holy things: the love of God revealed to us in Christ and all his gifts," states the pope, writing in his annual Lenten message.

"Among these gifts there is also the response of those who let themselves be touched by this love," he continues. "In this communion of saints, in this sharing in holy things, no one possesses anything alone, but shares everything with others."

Released by the Vatican Tuesday, Francis' message for Lent focuses on three quotations from the New Testament -- with one reflection directed towards the church as a whole, another to parish groups and communities, and the last to individual Christians.

Lent, which begins this year on Feb. 18 for Latin-rite Catholics, is an annual 40-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving marked by Christians before the celebration of Easter.

The Vatican hosted a press conference Tuesday to release Francis' message. Among speakers at the event were Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, head of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, and Michel Roy, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis.

Cor Unum is the Vatican office tasked with coordinating and overseeing the church's humanitarian relief and charity. Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of some 160 Catholic development, relief, and social service agencies around the world.

Speaking to reporters after the conference, Roy mentioned that the "strongest reactions" to Francis' repeated criticisms of the global market system frequently come from those in the United States.

"That's just the fact," said Roy. "I don't think that we can say that Pope Francis, or the Holy See, or the church, is ignorant of these issues."

Roy, who has led Caritas since 2011, also echoed criticisms the pope has made about the role of money in society, saying it should only be used as a tool.

"Making money is something that is part of life," he said. "But making money only to increase the riches and forgetting people is not acceptable and the church has always been saying that. But it meets a lot of opposition."

"Making money out of money only for money, which is what is very often the financial industry game -- like a casino -- that is not acceptable," Roy continued. "That has major consequences [for] people. That should not exist. Money should be really a tool not a game, and especially not making money out of money."

"Let us put the people back," said Roy. "Economy at the service of the people and people at the service of economy."

Francis uses his Lenten message -- which has the title "Make your hearts firm," a quotation from the New Testament letter of James -- to call on Christians to remember those in need during the season before Easter.

"Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure… Our heart grows cold," states the pope at the beginning of the message.

"As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off," he continues. "Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference. It is a problem that we, as Christians, need to confront."

"Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians," states the pope. "Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience."

Francis calls on church members to share their belongings in the section of the message dedicated to the church as a whole.

Reflecting on the Body of Christ, an image Christians use to indicate that all the faithful are tied together as one body, Francis states: "In this body there is no room for the indifference that so often seems to possess our hearts."

"For whoever is of Christ, belongs to one body, and in him we cannot be indifferent to one another," the pope continues.

In the section of the message for parish groups and communities, Francis calls on those groups to "press beyond the boundaries of the visible Church" by uniting their prayers with those in Heaven and to "be engaged in the life of the greater society."

"In each of our neighbors ... we must see a brother or sister for whom Christ died and rose again," states the pontiff. "What we ourselves have received, we have received for them as well."

"Dear brothers and sisters, how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!" exhorts Francis.

For individuals, Francis calls on people to practice what Pope Benedict XVI called a "formation of the heart" to be merciful and open to the needs of others.

"A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart," states the pope. "Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God."

"A heart that lets itself be pierced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters," he continues. "And, ultimately, a poor heart, one that realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others."

"During this Lent, then, brothers and sisters, let us all ask the Lord: Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum: Make our hearts like yours," Francis ends the message. "In this way we will receive a heart that is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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