Francis tells cardinals not to be 'closed caste,' seek contact with marginalized

This story appears in the Consistory 2015 feature series. View the full series.
New Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, carries his scroll after receiving his red biretta from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica Feb. 14. (CNS/Paul Haring)

New Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, carries his scroll after receiving his red biretta from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica Feb. 14. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Forcefully repeating his message of engagement and of reaching out to those marginalized by society, Pope Francis on Sunday told the world's Catholic cardinals they cannot become a "closed caste" of prelates who do not turn to the outcast or to those in need.

Speaking during a homily at a Mass Sunday with some 160 cardinals from around the world, Francis again outlined for the high prelates a powerful vision of a church marked first by seeking out others and by welcoming them, no matter their situation in life.

The credibility of the church and on the Christian message, the pontiff said, rests entirely on how Christians serve those marginalized by society.

"Dear brothers," Francis told the cardinals, "I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians -- edified by our witness -- will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it."

Saying he urged the prelates "to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized," the pope said they must "see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or who have declared themselves to be atheists."

"We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!" the pope exhorted. "Truly, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is found and is revealed!'

Francis was speaking Sunday at a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica to mark his creation of 20 new cardinals from around the world on Saturday. His words during the homily seemed to portray a significantly new vision for how he wants cardinals -- historically called the "princes of the church" -- to go about their work.

Reflecting on Sunday's Gospel reading -- a section from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus touches a leper and heals him -- Francis spoke for an unusually long 15 minutes on the need to be compassionate, to seek to "reintegrate" the marginalized, and to "respond immediately" to those left most in need by society.

The pope outlined what he said were two ways "of thinking and of having faith."

"We can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost," said Francis. "Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking."

"The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person," he continued. "And the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation."

"These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church's history: Casting off and reintegrating," said Francis.

"The Church's way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reintegration," he said.

"This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold," said the pope. "But welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world."

"The way of the Church is not condemning anyone eternally; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart," said Francis. "The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those on the 'outskirts' of life."

"In a word: charity cannot be neutral, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial!" Francis exhorted. "Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous!"

"Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable," said the pope. "Contact is the true language of communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper."

"How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language!" he said. "The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that 'he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word.'"

Addressing directly the 20 prelates he named as cardinals Saturday, Francis said that the curing of the leper is the "logic, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church."

"Not only to welcome and reintegrate with evangelical courage all those knock at our door, but to go out and to seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received," said the pope.

He continued: "Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honor!"

Earlier in his homily, Francis meditated directly on Jesus' action in the Gospel story, saying he had wanted to touch the leper in order to "restore him to the community without being 'hemmed in' by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected."

"Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences!" said the pope. "For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family!"

"And this is scandalous to some people!" Francis said. "Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal!"

Jesus, said the pope, "does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity."

Jesus, Francis said, "wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp."

Cardinals are usually senior Catholic prelates who serve either as archbishops in the world's largest dioceses or in the Vatican's central bureaucracy. Their principal role is to gather in secret conclave after the death or resignation of a pope to elect his successor.

While historically cardinals have come from certain larger cities known for their Catholic populations or global importance, Francis has sought to diversify representation in the group -- choosing men from places long underrepresented or even not represented in the College of Cardinals.

During Saturday's ceremony, Francis again diversified representation in the College -- adding 20 prelates from 18 different countries, several from places never before included in the elite group.

Beginning his homily during the Saturday ceremony, the pope bluntly told the assembled cardinals that they should not consider their title an honorific, saying: "The cardinalate is certainly an honor, but it is not honorific."

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

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: Francis warns cardinals against becoming a 'closed caste'.

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