Francis: Catholics who judge, criticize offer 'counter-witness' to Jesus

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has strongly criticized Catholics who brag that they are perfect followers of the church's teachings but then criticize or speak ill of others in their faith communities, saying they cause scandal and even offer a "counter-witness" to Jesus.

"We all know in our communities, in our parishes, in our neighborhoods how much hurt they do the church, and give scandal, those persons that call themselves 'Very Catholic,'" the pontiff said Sunday.

"They go often to church, but after, in their daily life, ignore the family, speak ill of others, and so on," he continued. "This is that which Jesus condemns because this is a Christian 'counter-witness.'"

Francis was speaking Sunday in an off-the-cuff moment during his weekly Angelus address in St. Peter's Square, which focused on one of Jesus' teachings about the role of the proscribed laws of the faith of his time.

The Gospel for the day, taken from Mark, sees Jesus questioned by Pharisees about why his disciples did not follow Jewish law regarding the cleansing of hands before eating. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, quoting the prophet Isaiah and saying they honor God with their lips but not their hearts.

Jesus' response to the Pharisees, Francis said Sunday, "has the force of a prophetic pronouncement."

"They are words that might fill us with admiration for our teacher," said the pope. "We feel that in him there is the truth and that his wisdom liberates us from prejudices."

But then the pontiff sharply warned that Jesus words apply also to Christians today.

"Caution!" Francis exhorted the crowds in the Square. "With these words, Jesus also wants to put us, today, on guard against considering that the exterior observance of the law may be sufficient to be good Christians."

"As it was for the Pharisees, there also exists for us the danger of considering our place as better than others for the only fact of observing the rules or customs, even if we do not love our neighbor, [even if] we are hard of heart or prideful," said the pontiff.

"The literal observance of the precepts is something sterile if it does not change the heart and is not translated into concrete attitudes," he said, giving examples: "Opening yourself to the encounter with God and God's word in prayer, searching for justice and peace, giving help to the poor, the weak and the oppressed."

Exterior attitudes, Francis said, are determined by what's in our hearts.

"The exterior attitudes are the consequence of what we have determined in the heart," said the pope. "Not the opposite! With outside attitudes, if the heart does not change we are not true Christians."

"The border between good and evil doesn't pass outside of us but rather inside of us," the pontiff continued. "And we can ask ourselves: Where is my heart?"

"Jesus said your treasure is that where your heart is," said Francis. "Which is my treasure? Is it Jesus and his doctrine? Then the heart is good. Or is your treasure another thing?"

Beginning the Angelus prayer, the pope said they would ask Sunday that the Lord grant those present "a pure heart, free of every hypocrisy."

"This is [what] Jesus says to the Pharisees: Hypocrites," said Francis. "Because they say something and then do another."

The pontiff said they would pray for hearts free of hypocrisy "so that we may be able to live according to the spirit of the law and arrive at its end, which is love."

After saying the Angelus Sunday, Francis prayed both for Christians facing persecution in the Middle East and for the 71 migrants who were found dead last week in a truck in Austria.

He called on the international community to find a way to bring an end to the violence in the Middle East and to prevent such crimes as those in Austria, saying "they offend the whole human family."

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

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