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Francis bids farewell, tells Catholics to avoid ‘perversion’ of ‘narrow’ faith

Pope Francis, center, arrives to celebrate the final Mass of his visit to the U.S. at the Festival of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on September 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Pope Francis (C) arrives to celebrate his final mass of his visit to the United States at the Festival of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania September 27, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Pope Francis, center, arrives to celebrate the final Mass of his visit to the U.S. at the Festival of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on September 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-FAREWELL, originally transmitted on Sept. 27, 2015.

PHILADELPHIA (RNS) Pope Francis ended his historic, and taxing, trip to the U.S. on Sunday (Sept. 27) after again renewing his call to American Catholics — and, by extension, the entire church — to move beyond a “narrow” vision of Catholicism that he denounced as “a perversion of faith.”

Speaking to close to a million people jamming the main thoroughfare of the city for the closing Mass, Francis began his homily by citing the Scripture stories in which followers of Moses, and later Jesus, complain that others are prophesying and casting out demons without permission.

“Here is the surprise,” said Francis, speaking from an altar set up in front of the city’s art museum: “Moses and Jesus both rebuke those closest to them for being so narrow! Would that all could be prophets of God’s word!”

“(T)he temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith,” the pope continued. “Hence it must be vigorously rejected.”

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Click on the logo to read more Religion News Service coverage of the pope in the U.S. 

“To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not ‘part of our group,’ who are not ‘like us,’ is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!”

The pontiff’s homily essentially summarized the chief themes of this visit, which began Sept. 19 with a three-day stay in Cuba before moving on to the U.S., with stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

The six days of the U.S. leg were packed with historic speeches to Congress and the United Nations, meetings with President Obama and sex abuse victims, as well as various Masses, parades, photo ops and lectures — the latter mainly to his bishops.

It was to the U.S. hierarchy, which critics say has taken a hostile, culture-war attitude to the public square, that Francis most forcefully delivered his exhortation — to change their ways, to be inclusive and welcoming, understanding and flexible, positive and open to dialogue rather than picking fights.

But the persistent thread of openness —  to change in the church and to people who may think differently or disagree — will also be the theme, and flashpoint, of a pivotal Vatican summit of leading bishops that Francis is set to convene next Sunday (Oct. 4)  to discuss concrete ways to welcome families that may not conform to the ideal of the catechism.

Pope Francis (L) celebrates his final mass of his visit to the United States at the Festival of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania September 27, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Tony Gentile -

Pope Francis, left, celebrates the final Mass of his visit to the U.S. at the Festival of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on September 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-FAREWELL, originally transmitted on Sept. 27, 2015.

That three-week meeting, called a synod, will bring together nearly 300 cardinals and bishops to discuss whether, and how, the church can tweak its practices or doctrines to be more open to divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, or to gay Catholics.

Francis opened that debate soon after his election in March 2013, and called a synod last October to begin the process of dialogue in the church that he says is needed after decades in which open discussion was discouraged and sometimes harshly censored.

But that dialogue has also unleashed a fierce backlash from conservatives, in the pope’s own Vatican bureaucracy and the right wing of the U.S. hierarchy, which has been the source of some of the sharpest criticisms of Francis and his new approach.

Charges of heresy and dire warnings of schism have set the stage for the synod, which in many respects — despite the massive media coverage of the U.S. visit — will be much more crucial to the success of Francis’ agenda, and the future course of Catholicism.

Yet the U.S. visit, the first to this country by the first Latin American pope in history, was also an important rehearsal of the dynamics Francis is facing.


READ: Throngs fill Benjamin Franklin Parkway for pope’s final US Mass


In almost every talk and at almost every appearance, Francis had a chance to endorse and affirm the hierarchy’s priorities — denouncing same-sex marriage as the great threat to the survival of the church, and the Obama administration as an enemy of religious freedom, or blaming secularism and the weak faith of the flock for the church’s decline.

Instead, he powerfully, yet almost poetically, turned that calculus on its head, telling the bishops to avoid “harsh and divisive language” that may momentarily satisfy the ego. Rather, as he told them, the shepherds should embrace an approach “which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.”

The faith is spread by going out to care for the poor and marginalized, those who are lonely and suffering, rather than expounding “complicated doctrines,” he said. All life is sacred, from the womb to the elderly — including the environment — without distinction, Francis said. There are no “non-negotiable” issues that favor some political agendas and stack the deck against others.

Do not fear the world, or fear compromise with one’s foes, but dialogue and work for the common good, he told Congress on Thursday.

“A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced,” he told dozens of churchmen from around the world earlier Sunday. “I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.”


READ: Pope to prisoners: I stand before you a brother


Francis made this trip in part because his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had announced in 2012, at the end of the last World Meeting of Families in Milan, that the next triennial meeting would be here in Philadelphia. Then Benedict resigned in February 2013, and Francis was elected.

Many believe Francis, an Argentine, would have preferred to visit the South and West and the burgeoning Latino Catholic population there, but he was locked into this itinerary.

At the end of Sunday’s Mass, a Vatican official announced that Francis, in turn, has chosen the venue for the next World Meeting of Families — Dublin, another city, like Philadelphia, with a venerable Catholic population that has been devastated by revelations of clergy abuse and a near collapse of credibility in the institutional church.

Whether the 78-year-old Francis will be pope then is unknown.

He has said he expects his pontificate to be brief, not more than a few years. He seemed fatigued at certain points during this marathon visit, the longest and in some respects toughest of his papacy, and he was clearly suffering from sciatica that causes sharp pain in his legs.

But he seemed reinvigorated in the last 24 hours, and at the end of Sunday’s Mass he smiled and told the crowd: “I ask you to pray for me. Don’t forget!”

He will need all the prayers, and energy, he can muster for the coming month.

LM/AMB END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

23 Comments

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  • = Matt 7:13-14
    /7:13/ “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. /14/ For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

    But did Jesus utter these words?

    No, he did not. See for example: http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb163.html
    and Professor Gerd Ludemann’s analysis in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 152-153.

  • When this nation, and all its Catholics, Protestants, and other religions, crash head-on into catastrophic divine judgment (and it’s looking like a lock these days), then let Pope Francis and Gerd Ludemann advise us on how to put out the fires and dig ourselves out of what will be a rather deep hole.

  • Since neither you nor Ludemann were there, Bernardo,how do either of you know what Jesus said,or whether the Biblical authors recorded His Words accurately? Usually this type of back-and-forth winds up being what I refer to the nowhere road traveled by”dueling scholars”leading down a one-way road to pseudo-intellectual nonsense.I can name 10 scholars who can affirm the exact opposite of Ludemann’s claim…now what? I’ve studied/have been studying the Christian Faith for over 25 years now, and to date I’ve yet to find a reason to label any Biblical author a liar.

  • Notable comments by Pope Francis —

    ” …avoid “harsh and divisive language” that may momentarily satisfy the ego…the shepherds should embrace an approach “which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.” ”

    ” Do not fear the world, or fear compromise with one’s foes, but dialogue and work for the common good. ”

    An excellent comment.

    ” “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced,” …“I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.”

    ” The faith is spread…rather than expounding “complicated doctrines,” “

  • Surely to under-rate one half of the human race – and of the Church- is a narrow faith and a foolish perversion?
    WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO RECOGNISE WOMANKIND?

  • “Womankind” has always been recognized and exalted in the Church by honoring the Blessed Virgin! She is a model for both men and women, this Lady, who “knows how to obey” the Holy Spirit, who, “ponders the Word in her heart.” Go and learn from her!

  • LC. Ringo,

    o Professor JD Crossan and other contemporary NT scholars have rigorously tested all the NT passages using the modern techniques of number of attestations, time strata, grammar, local community social interactions, language and archaeology to determine passage authenticity. A summary of Professor Crossan’s studies and conclusions (only 30% of the NT is authentic) can be found in his book, The Historic Jesus and at http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=Crossan_Inventory. Other studies of Professor Crossan and plus those of other exegetes can also be found at http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html.

    Professor Gerd Ludemann’s studies and conclusions can found in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years. He summarizes the authentic NT passages on pp. 694-695 (significantly less than 30% authentic) and as with other experts, Professor Ludemann notes the following:

    p. 416,

    “Anyone looking for the historical Jesus will not find him in the Gospel of John…

  • Mary was blessed but was by no means a virgin.

    Mark’s gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event. (i.e. X-mas)

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, “The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative in respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil.

    Matt 1:18-25: , pp. 123-124, “The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical”. Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

    “Lüdemann [pp. 261-63) discounts Luke’s account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic son-ship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. ”

    continued below:

  • “The following ancient parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception should be noted:

    Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
    Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
    Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
    Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]”

    And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:

    “And the day will come,
    when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the Supreme Being as His Father,
    in the womb of a virgin,
    will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva”

    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

  • “AVOID PERVERSION..” – POPE FRANCIS
    Or follow your Bible:
    “Surrender to perversity..” – (1 PETER 2:18)

    “AVOID NARROW FAITH” – POPE FRANCIS
    Or follow your Bible:
    “Follow the narrow path” – JESUS (Matthew 7:14)

    I don’t mind if the Pope abandons his Bible. It would improve the world to abandon all of it – But he must stop calling it scripture as he does so.

  • More on Mary:

    Matt 1:18-25: (Jesus After 2000 Years , pp. 123-124) “The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the vi-rgin Mary are unhistorical”. Ludemann gives a very detailed an-alysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

    “Lüdemann [pp. 261-63) discounts Luke’s account as a legend deriving from Jewish He-llenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the pro-creation of the Spirit, the authentic son-ship of the Messiah and the v-irginal conception. ”

    Some words hyphenated to defeat a word filter.

  • Bernardo, enough with this Karla-esque spam. The so-called “Jesus Seminar” was a pow-wow of liberal theologians, not historians, and their methods were anything but “rigorous” but largely consisted of pre-set premises that beg the very questions they purported to examine. Don’t be so easily impressed.

  • Shawnie,

    The voting methods of the Jesus Seminarians were an attempt to get as much input into the validity of the NT passages as possible.

    Others like Professors Crossan and Ludemann used rigorous historic testing as previously described i.e using the modern techniques of number of attestations, time strata, grammar, local community social interactions, language and archaeology to determine passage authenticity.

  • “The voting methods of the Jesus Seminarians were an attempt to get as much input into the validity of the NT passages as possible.” In that case one would think they would have put together a larger and more diverse group of experts, and engaged in actual debate rather than dropping colored beads into a container. The seminar was composed of a small group of liberal fringe theologians personally selected by Robert Funk who also set the “premises” and “rules of evidence” that would be used to examine the gospels.

    Premise #1: “The historical Jesus is to be distinguished from the gospel portraits of him.”

    Rule of Evidence #1: The evangelists frequently group sayings and parables in clusters and complexes that did not originate with Jesus.”

    And that’s only the first two…

    All fine…if this is what the examination of the gospels reveal. But these are their STARTING POINTS. And this is supposed to be “rigorous testing?” Pfft.

  • Shawnie,

    Re-read my comments. I did not say that the Jesus Semarians used rigorous historic testing. I said Professors Crossan and Ludemann did. The Jesus Semarians discussed the NT passages under review and based on this discussion and the analyses of the participants themselves voted as to the authenticity of said passage.

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