Francis: Church has a 'preferential option' for sinners, too

Vatican City — The global Catholic church should seek to bring God's salvation to all and not only to those that society considers good or worthy, Pope Francis said at his weekly audience Wednesday.

Reflecting on the meaning of the Gospel story of the so-called "good thief" who was crucified alongside Jesus, the pontiff said all are called to the salvation of God, including those who have done both good and bad things in their lives.

"The church is not only for the good or for those that seem good or believe themselves good," Francis exclaimed. "The church is for all and even preferably for the bad, because the church is mercy!"

Francis was reflecting in his audience Wednesday on the one of the final passages from Luke's Gospel, where one of the criminals being crucified with Jesus turns to him and asks to be remembered when Jesus inherits his heavenly kingdom.

"His words are a marvelous model of repentance, a concentrated catechesis to learn to ask Jesus for forgiveness," the pope said of the thief's words.

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"This is how the good thief becomes a witness of grace," said Francis.

"The unthinkable has happened," the pontiff imagined the thief's thinking. "God has loved me and died on the cross for me."

"It's true," the pope added off the cuff. "He was a thief. It's true. He robbed his whole life. But at the end, penitent for what he had done, looking at Jesus so good and merciful, he was able to ‘rob' Heaven."

Francis said the way that the thief directs himself for help directly to Jesus, invoking his name, is an example for Christians to follow.

"In this way someone condemned to death becomes a model of the Christian who entrusts themselves to Jesus," said the pontiff. "This is profound. Someone condemned to death is a model for us: a model of a man, of a Christian who trusted in Jesus."

In his death on the cross, Francis said Jesus "made a donation of love, from which forever flows our salvation."

"Dying on the cross, innocent between two criminals, he attested that God's salvation can reach any person in any condition, even the most negative and painful; that it is for all," said the pontiff.

"Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ!" Francis exclaimed.

"Whoever is stuck in a hospital bed, whoever lives locked up in prison, whoever is ensnared by war, I say: Look to the crucifix; God is with you," the pope continued. "He remains with you on the cross and offers himself to all as savior."

"Let the force of the Gospel penetrate your heart and console you, give you hope and the intimate certainty that no one is excluded from his forgiveness," said the pope.

Francis ended his audience by reflecting on the final words between the thief and Jesus.

"While the good thief speaks of the future -- ‘when you come into your kingdom' -- Jesus does not make you wait, he says: ‘today you will be with me in paradise,'" said the pontiff. "At the hour of the cross, the salvation of Christ reaches its culmination and his promise to the good thief reveals the fulfillment of his mission: saving sinners."

"From the beginning to the end, [Jesus] is revealed as mercy, the final and unique incarnation of the love of the father," said the pope.

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

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