VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis urged priests to be spiritually close to their flocks and not insist only on preaching laws when they sin.
Francis issued the guidance during Holy Thursday Mass, which is meant to show the unity of the Catholic Church during its most solemn, pre-Easter period.
In his homily, Francis warned priests to not be tempted to "idolize" church law and doctrine when preaching, since that can distance ordinary faithful from Jesus. Even when people commit adultery, he said, priests should not condemn with legalisms. Rather, he said, priests should help adulterers to look forward, even if they have to tell them not to sin over and over.
The admonition came as conservatives have complained that Francis is dividing the church with his opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion. Critics say Francis is disregarding church law about the indissolubility of marriage by effectively allowing adulterers access to the sacraments.
Francis appeared to be answering the criticism with his Holy Thursday Mass, choosing specifically to preach about how priests should accompany adulterers during a Mass meant to demonstrate the unity of priests with their bishops. He told priests in St. Peter's Basilica that Jesus wasn't disregarding the law when, in the biblical story, he refused to condemn an adulterer when he found her.
Francis said priests can tell adulterers not to sin again, but using a nonlegalistic tone that allows the sinner "to look forward and not backward."
"The correct tone is that of the confessor who is prepared to repeat it 70 times seven," he said.
Holy Thursday marks the start of an intense four days of activity leading up to Easter Sunday, including the Thursday afternoon ritual washing of the feet of 12 people, which Francis will perform at Rome's central Regina Coeli prison.
The 12 inmates include Catholics, Muslims, an Orthodox Christian and a Buddhist, the Vatican said. They hail from Italy, the Philippines, Morocco, Moldova, Colombia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
On Friday, Francis presides over the Way of the Cross procession at Rome's Colosseum re-enacting Christ's crucifixion. Saturday night, the pope celebrates the solemn Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica, followed by the joyful Easter Sunday Mass marking Christ's resurrection.