Rome — Pope Francis reiterated Wednesday that the Catholic church can never consider someone irrevocably separated from its global community, saying that Jesus does not consider anyone "definitively lost" but instead seeks them out to welcome them anew.
In a reflection in his weekly general audience on the Gospel parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find one who has become lost, the pontiff said that in Jesus' vision "there are not sheep who are definitively lost but only sheep meant to be found."
"We must understand this well: for God, no one is definitively lost," said the pope. "Never! Up to the last moment, God looks for us."
"The perspective therefore is ... dynamic, open, stimulating, and creative," said Francis. "It pushes us to go out in search of undertaking a way of fraternity."
"No distance can keep the shepherd away; and no flock can renounce a brother or sister," he continued. "Finding who is lost is the joy of the pastor and of God, but is also the joy of the whole flock! We are all sheep who have been found and gathered up by the mercy of the Lord, called to gather together to him the whole flock!"
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Speaking to a packed crowd in St. Peter's Square on a sunny spring day, the pontiff called on Catholic and Christian communities globally to reflect on the meaning of the parable of the lost sheep, given by Jesus in both Luke's and Matthew's Gospels.
"We must reflect often on this parable because in our Christian community there is always someone that is missing and has left leaving an empty spot," said the pope. "Sometimes this is discouraging and brings us to believe that it was an inevitable loss, a sickness without remedy."
But, Francis said, communities that think this way end up displaying a rather unattractive quality.
"It is then that we run the risk of closing ourselves up in a sheep-pen, where there will not be the smell of the sheep but the stink of being closed up!" exhorted the pontiff. "We must not be closed up because we will have the stink of things that are closed up."
"Never!" Francis cried out. "We must get out and not close in on ourselves, in our small communities, in our parishes, believing ourselves 'the just.' This happens when we are lacking the missionary impulse that brings us to meet others."
Reflecting more at length on the parable, the pope said that after the loss of the one sheep, the shepherd might have reasoned to himself: "I'll make the balance; I have the 99, I have lost one but it is not a great loss."
"He instead goes to search for that one, because each one is very important for him and that one is the most in need, the most abandoned, the most thrown away," said Francis.
"We are all forewarned: mercy towards sinners is the style with which God acts and God's mercy is absolutely faithful -- nothing and no one can divert God from God's will of salvation," he said.
"God does not know our current throwaway culture; God has nothing to do with it," said the pope. "God does not throwaway any person; God loves all, looks for all; one by one! God does not know this phrase 'throwaway people' because God is all love and all mercy."
"The Lord's flock is always on the path: you cannot possess the Lord, you cannot delude yourself of imprisoning him into our schemes and our strategies," said the pontiff. "The pastor will be found there where the sheep is lost. The Lord therefore goes to search there where he wants to meet us, not where we insist on finding him!"
Responding to those who might say that searching for the lost sheep leaves the other 99 vulnerable, Francis said: "In no other way can you put the flock back together if you are not following the way traced by the mercy of the pastor."
"While searching for the lost sheep, he provokes the 99 into participating in the reunification of the flock," said the pope. "Then it is not only the sheep carried on his back, but all the flock will follow the pastor to his house to have a party with friends and neighbors."