Driving home his defence of migrants and refugees, Pope Francis told Bulgarian Catholics this week that the Church must always be a supportive community whose doors are open to all, especially those who are far away from home.
As he often has in the past, the Pope in his May 6 speech referred to the Church as a mother who “experiences and makes her children’s problems her own” and who doesn’t offer “ready-made answers”, but who instead seeks reconciliation.
As a family and a community that takes on “the knotty problems of life, which are often like balls of tangled wool”, the Church, before untangling them, “has to make them its own, taking them into its hands and loving them”, he said.
The Church, he said, is “a family among families, open to bearing witness in today’s world, as our sister told us, open to faith, hope and love for the Lord and for those whom he has a preferential love. A home with open doors”.
Recalling his visit to the Vrazhdebna refugee centre earlier that morning, he said he met refugees and asylum seekers “from various countries looking for a better place to live than the one they left”.
Francis noted how he also met volunteers from the papal charity Caritas, who insisted that the core of the centre’s work “is the recognition that every person is a child of God, regardless of ethnicity or religious confession”.
“In order to love someone, there is no need to ask for a curriculum vitae; love precedes, it takes the first step. Because it is gratuitous,” he said, adding that the volunteers knew how to look at people without prejudice.
“Seeing with the eyes of Faith is a summons not to spend your life pinning labels, classifying those who are worthy of love and those who are not, but trying to create conditions in which every person can feel loved, especially those who feel forgotten by God because they are forgotten by their brothers and sisters,” he said.
As part of his May 5-7 visit to Bulgaria and Macedonia, Francis spoke to members of the Catholic community in Rakovsky gathered inside St Michael the Archangel parish, visited a refugee center on the outskirts of Sofia and gave First Communion to some 245 children at Rakovsky’s Sacred Heart parish before lunching with the country’s bishops. His time in Bulgaria closed with an interreligious prayer for peace, and then he headed to Skopje, Macedonia, the birthplace of St Teresa of Calcutta, for a brief daytrip during where he visited a shrine dedicated to the saint.
During his meeting with the Catholic community, Francis listened to testimonies from a family, a priest and a religious sister.
In his address, Francis spoke of the dynamics of living as a religious minority in a country where Orthodox make up the majority of the nation’s population of 7.1 million.
Speaking of St John XXIII, who, before being named Pope, served as apostolic delegate in Bulgaria for nearly a decade, Francis said being stationed in Sofia set the foundation for the future Pope’s commitment to ecumenism, a key theme of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.
It was in Bulgaria that the then-Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Roncalli formed close ties with the Orthodox, which set him “on a path that would help foster the longed-for, yet ever fragile sense of fraternity between individuals and communities”.
“He was convinced of the need to trust in God’s providence, which constantly accompanies us and even in the midst of adversity is capable of bringing about his deeper and unforeseeable plans.”
Francis stressed the need to rely on the help and support of others. He pointed to the example of couple Mitko and Miroslava, and their daughter Bilyana, who in their testimony spoke to the Pope about experiencing their parish as a “second home” where they found strength and support from the community.
Parishes, he said, must always be a home open to everyone, never closing their doors.
Noting how Mitko and Miroslava said they have taken to heart his advice to spouses, telling them not ever to go to bed angry, Francis stressed the need to guard against anger, resentment and bitterness, saying Christians must help and care for one another “so that the fire that the Spirit has kindled in our hearts never goes out”.
He also thanked priests and religious for their work and service to the people, saying a true community is one that “supports, accompanies, integrates and enriches. Never separated, but united, where everyone learns to be a sign and blessing of God for others”.
In this sense, he gave Catholics a task, telling them to follow in the example of Ss Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who are highly revered in both Catholic and Orthodox traditions for having evangelised the Slavic world, translating biblical and liturgical texts into local languages.
These brothers “were convinced that the most authentic way to talk to God was in one’s own language”, he said, and urged Catholics to be “a home with open doors”, which, in the footsteps of Cyril and Methodius, “means that today too, we need to be bold and creative”.
Francis stressed the need to reach out especially to young people, many of whom lack the “deep roots” of family and a solid support system, making it easier to give up when they face frustrations or disappointments.
This is even truer, he said, “when they are forced to leave behind their homes, their country and their family”.
Elise Harris is Senior Correspondent at Cruxnow.com