Francis cries out for welcoming church: ‘House of God refuge, not prison’

Policemen watch as Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 18. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Policemen watch as Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 18. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has again forcefully repeated his call that the Catholic church globally should open its doors to everyone, without exception, saying the church sometimes even keeps Jesus “prisoner” in its own institutions and does not let him out into the world.

The pontiff has also said the church must not give into a growing trend in society where “bulletproof doors have become normal” but must instead keep in mind the Holy Family, which “knows well what an open or closed door means … for whoever does not have refuge, for whoever must escape danger.”

In his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square Wednesday, Francis focused on the upcoming opening of the Jubilee year of mercy to give an impassioned, mostly off-the-cuff reflection on the need for the church to be open to all and to not try and become master even over Jesus himself.

“The house of God is a refuge, not a prison!” the pope cried out at one point. “And if the door is closed, we say: ‘Lord, open the door!’ Jesus is the door that lets us enter and exit.”

“If the watchman listens to the voice of the shepherd, then he opens and gives entry to all the sheep that the Lord brings -- all -- including those lost in the wood that the shepherd has gone to find,” said Francis.

“The sheep are not chosen by the watchman, the sheep are not chosen by the parish secretary,” he continued. “The sheep are all invited, are chosen by the good shepherd.”

“The watchman -- even him -- obeys the voice of the shepherd,” said the pope. “Here, we can say well that we must be like that watchman.”

“The church is the doorman of the house of the Lord, the church is the doorman -- it is not the master of the house of the Lord!” he cried out.

Francis was speaking about his special Jubilee year, which is to open Dec. 8 and continue through Nov. 20, 2016. He told those in the Square Wednesday that “the great door of the mercy of God” is being opened to all.

“Every one of us has inside of ourselves things that weigh on us -- everyone, no?” said the pontiff. “We are all sinners! Let’s profit from this moment that is coming and cross the threshold of this mercy of God that never tires of forgiving, never tires of waiting for us. God looks to us and is always next to us. Courage! Let’s go in this door!”

The pope then spoke of October’s worldwide meeting of Catholic prelates, known as a Synod of Bishops.

“From the Synod of Bishops ... all families and the whole church have received a great encouragement to put itself on the threshold of this open door,” said Francis. “The church was encouraged to open its doors, to go out with the Lord to meet its sons and daughters on the path, sometimes uncertain, sometimes lost in these difficult times.”

“And if the door of the mercy of God is always open, the doors of our churches, of the love of our communities, of our parishes, of our institutions, of our dioceses must always be open so that all of us can go out to bring this mercy of God,” he continued.

“The Jubilee signifies the great door of the mercy of God, but also the small doors of our churches [being] open to let the Lord enter or, many times, let out the ‘prisoner’ Lord of our structures, of our selfishness,” he said.

Then, speaking of a growing trend towards hypersensitive security in the world, Francis said: “There are many places where bulletproof doors have become normal.”

“We must not surrender ourselves to the idea of having to apply this system … to all our lives, to the life of the family, of the city, of society,” said the pontiff. “And much less to the life of the church. It would be terrible -- an inhospitable church, like a pent-up family, demeaning the Gospel and drying up the world!”

“No bulletproof doors in the church!” he exhorted. “All open!”

Francis also said that while doors must be guarded, the guards should also open the doors to see who is outside.

“Open the door frequently, to see if outside there is someone who is waiting and maybe doesn’t have the courage, or maybe even the strength, to knock,” advised the pope.

“How many people have lost the confidence, do not have the courage to knock on the door of our Christian heart, on the doors of our churches?” he asked. “And they are there, they do not have the courage, we have robbed them of trust.”

The pontiff then said that the true guard of God’s door is Jesus. “We must walk through the door and listen to the voice of Jesus,” said Francis. “If we hear his tone of voice, we are sure, we are saved. We may enter without fear and leave without danger.”

Ending the audience with a reflection on the Holy Family, the pope said the family from Nazareth “knows well what an open or closed door means for whoever is expecting a child, for whoever does not have refuge, for whoever must escape danger.”

“May Christian families make the thresholds of their homes a ‘small great’ sign of the door of mercy and welcoming of God,” Francis asked.

“It is truly this way that the church must be recognized, in every corner of the earth, like the watchperson of a God that knocks, like the welcoming of a God that does not close the door in your face, with the excuse of not being home,” he said.

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

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