VATICAN CITY (RNS) — On Holy Thursday (April 1), Pope Francis celebrated the Chrism Mass, when priests and deacons renew their ordination promises, by reminding clergy that “the preaching of the gospel is always linked to the embrace of some particular cross.”
Referring to the day’s reading, when Jesus is faced with hostility and violence after revealing his divine nature at the synagogue, Pope Francis reminded clergy “that the hour of joyful proclamation, the hour of persecution and the hour of the cross go together.”
Those gathered for the Mass, including many cardinals and auxiliary bishops of Rome, may have heard in Francis’ sermon encouragement for what has been a challenging time for a church, engaged in structural and economic reform and faced with the repercussions of the pandemic and the continuing fallout of sexual abuse scandals.
One notable attendee was Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican financial czar who was convicted of sexual abuse charges in Australia before being acquitted on appeal last year. Pell wrote about his struggles in a recent book titled “Prison Journal: Volume One.”
Francis has borne the brunt of the controversy, facing outward hostility from Vatican curial officials have criticized him for his reforms and from conservative Catholics, lay and clergy, who have objected to his welcome to members of the LGBTQ community, women in ministry and immigrants.
Liberal Catholics, meanwhile, have condemned the pope’s recent approval of a document by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith banning blessings for same-ex couples.
It’s not only human weakness that brings about pain and suffering in the world, the pope said, but also “the serpent,” referring to the devil, who prompts humans to think of themselves and “keeps insisting: Save yourself.” He likened the devil to the “bite that tries to scandalize, disable and render futile and meaningless all service and loving sacrifice for others.”
Priests and faithful must look to Jesus, he continued, who through his sacrifice allows us “to discern and reject the venom of scandal, with which the devil wants to poison us whenever a cross unexpectedly appears in our lives.”
Francis’ words about the burdens of ministry may have referred to his own troubles with sciatica: It was announced that the pope would not be celebrating the Holy Thursday Mass later in the day. While no official explanation was given, it was suspected that the change was due to his chronic discomfort, which has hindered him from attending other events this year.
The afternoon Holy Thursday Mass will be celebrated by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, deacon of the College of Cardinals.
Besides the pope’s absence, the traditional ceremony of the washing of the feet will also be missing from the Mass, as the Italian government put in place a strict lockdown during Holy Week.
But at the Chrism Mass, Francis appeared to shake off the restrictions or the headwinds he is facing in his leadership. “We are not scandalized,” he said, citing Jesus’ firmness even in the face of “shouts and threats.”
“We are not scandalized because Jesus was not scandalized by having to heal the sick and to set prisoners free amid the moralistic, legalistic and clerical squabbles that arose every time he did some good,” he concluded.