Francis: 'First commandment' of parish life is closeness to people

Pope Francis talks with a Scout on Sunday while visiting St. Mary Mother of the Redeemer Parish on the outskirts of Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis talks with a Scout on Sunday while visiting St. Mary Mother of the Redeemer Parish on the outskirts of Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The key role of a Catholic parish is practicing closeness to its people by working to provide for their needs and to always show God's love for all, Pope Francis has said.

In fact, the pope said, the "first commandment" for parishes is to practice such closeness and to avoid telling people what they must change in their lives.

Speaking to the parish council of a church on the eastern outskirts of Rome Sunday evening, Francis emphasized the difficult situations many people are living when offering advice to the council about how to go about their work.

"You have only one defect, but it's the same one that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had," Francis told the council. "Being poor."

"Joseph had work; Jesus had work," said the pope. "Many people here don't have it. And they have to feed their children!"

"And how do they do it?" he asked. "Oh, you know!" he answered, mentioning the "temptation" of people who face difficult situations and say, "I don't want to do this; I'd rather not, but I must feed my children."

"This is your drama, of the people here," he said. "That goodness tested by injustice; injustice from unemployment or discrimination.

"And this is sin, it is grave sin," the pope continued. "Many people that are good are forced to do bad things, maybe, because they can't find another way."

Continuing by recounting the story he said he had heard of a member of another parish in another diocese being put in jail for stealing food to feed his children, the pontiff said: "Poor man, what injustice!"

"In order to fulfill a commandment, he was in prison," said Francis. "If your children are hungry and society does not help you work, does not help you find work, does not help you get rid of vices … you must feed your children."

Telling the parish council they should work "so that these situations do not repeat," the pope said, "You work to continue to go ahead with the people and to tell them: 'No, come here, what do you need? I will help you.'"

"For this, I recommend one thing, to you, to help people," he continued. "The first pastoral commandment is closeness: being close to the people. Closeness."

"We cannot go to a family with sick or hungry children -- or those that have fallen to vice -- we cannot go with 'You must, you must, you must,'" said the pope. "No. We must go with closeness, with the caress that Jesus has taught us."

"To save us, God was made close to us, was made one of us: Jesus, and suffered like us!" said Francis. "This is the way: Closeness."

Continuing later in the meeting with the pastoral council of St. Mary Mother of the Redeemer Parish, Francis told the group that "we announce Jesus Christ with gestures: Also with words, but first with gestures. With closeness."

"Get close," he exhorted them. "Do not be afraid of closeness. Do not be afraid of caresses: caress the people, the sick, the lonely, even those who deserve the title of 'miserable:' caress them, as God has caressed us."

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

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