Pope Francis told Slovakia’s Catholics on Monday that the Church should respond to secularization with the “creativity of the Gospel,” not “a defensive Catholicism.”
Speaking to clergy and lay people in St. Martin’s Cathedral in the capital, Bratislava, on Sept. 13, the pope encouraged Catholics to draw inspiration from Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who translated the Bible into the Slavonic language.
“Isn’t this what Slovakia also needs today? I wonder. Isn’t this perhaps the most urgent task facing the Church before the peoples of Europe: finding new ‘alphabets’ to proclaim the faith?” he asked.
“We are heirs to a rich Christian tradition, yet for many people today, that tradition is a relic from the past; it no longer speaks to them or affects the way they live their lives.”
“Faced with the loss of the sense of God and of the joy of faith, it is useless to complain, to hide behind a defensive Catholicism, to judge and blame the bad world. No, we need the creativity of the Gospel.”
The 84-year-old pope, who is making his first international trip since undergoing surgery in July, looked at ease as he delivered his live-streamed address in the capital’s largest church, located beneath the imposing Bratislava Castle.
Slovakian bishops, priests, religious, seminarians, and catechists listened on headsets to a live translation of the speech, which the pope delivered in Italian, frequently stopping for off-the-cuff remarks on everything from the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky to the importance of short homilies.
He said: “This is the first thing we need: a Church that can walk together, that can tread the paths of life holding high the living flame of the Gospel.”
“The Church is not a fortress, a stronghold, a lofty castle, self-sufficient and looking out upon the world below.”
“Here in Bratislava, you have a castle and it is a fine one. The Church, though, is a community that seeks to draw people to Christ with the joy of the Gospel — not the castle. She is the leaven of God’s Kingdom of love and peace in our world.”
He said that the Church must strive to be humble, like Jesus.
“How great is the beauty of a humble Church, a Church that does not stand aloof from the world, viewing life with a detached gaze, but lives her life within the world,” he said.
“Living within the world, let us not forget: sharing, walking together, welcoming people’s questions and expectations. This will help us to escape from our self-absorption, for the center of the Church … is not the Church.”
He continued: “We need to become immersed in the real lives of people and ask ourselves: what are their spiritual needs and expectations? What do they expect from the Church? It seems important to me to try to respond to these questions.”
He offered three words to help guide Catholics: freedom, creativity, and dialogue.
He noted that many people were afraid of freedom, saying: “We would rather get along by doing what others — perhaps the masses, or public opinion, or the things that the media sell us — decide for us. This should not be. And today so many times we do the things that the media decide for us.”
He recalled the biblical episode in which the Israelites asked if they were better off living in servitude in Egypt, with a guarantee of onions, than wandering exhausted in the desert.
He also referred to the story of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov,” who rebuked Jesus for giving humans freedom, insisting that what they needed was bread.
He said: “Sometimes in the Church too this idea can take hold. Better to have everything readily defined, laws to be obeyed, security and uniformity, rather than to be responsible Christians and adults who think, consult their conscience and allow themselves to be challenged. That’s the beginning of casuistry, all regulated…”
“In the spiritual and ecclesial life, we can be tempted to seek an ersatz peace that consoles us, rather than the fire of the Gospel that disturbs and transforms us. The safe onions of Egypt prove more comfortable than the uncertainties of the desert.”
“Yet a Church that has no room for the adventure of freedom, even in the spiritual life, risks becoming rigid and self-enclosed. Some people may be used to this. But many others — especially the younger generations — are not attracted by a faith that leaves them no interior freedom, by a Church in which all are supposed to think alike and blindly obey.”
He continued: “Dear friends, do not be afraid to train people for a mature and free relationship with God. This relationship is important.”
“Perhaps this will give us the impression that we are diminishing our control, power, and authority, yet the Church of Christ does not seek to dominate consciences and occupy spaces, but rather to be a ‘wellspring’ of hope in people’s lives.”
The pope urged bishops and priests to be attentive to their flock’s need for freedom as the country undergoes rapid changes.
“For this reason, I encourage you to help set them free from a rigid religiosity,” he said. “Get out of this, and let them grow free.”
“No one should feel overwhelmed. Everyone should discover the freedom of the Gospel by gradually entering into a relationship with God, confident that they can bring their history and personal hurts into his presence without fear or pretense, without feeling the need to protect their own image.”
“To be able to say: ‘I am a sinner,’ but to say it sincerely, not beat our chests and then continue to believe we are righteous. Freedom.”
“May the proclamation of the Gospel be liberating, never oppressive. And may the Church be a sign of freedom and welcome.”
Pope Francis recalled receiving a letter from a bishop complaining about the pope’s representative in his country.
The letter said: “We were 400 years under the Turks and we suffered. Then 50 under communism and we suffered. But the seven years with this nuncio were worse than the other two.”
The pope commented: “Sometimes I wonder: how many people can say the same about the bishop they have or the parish priest? How many people? No, without freedom, without fatherhood, things don’t work out.”
After reflecting on the need for creativity, Pope Francis appealed to clergy to limit homilies to around 10 minutes — a point he has made frequently since his election in 2013.
The spontaneous appeal prompted the audience to applaud. When the noise died down, the pope observed that the clapping had begun among a group of nuns, who, he joked, “are victims of our homilies.”
Emphasizing the need for dialogue, the pope referred to an episode in the life of the Slovakian Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec, who died in 2015. When he mentioned the cardinal’s name, he drew another strong round of applause.
The pope said: “He was a Jesuit cardinal, persecuted by the [communist] regime, imprisoned, and sentenced to forced labor until he fell ill. When he came to Rome for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, he went to the catacombs and lit a candle for his persecutors, imploring mercy for them.”
“This is the Gospel. This is the Gospel. It grows in life and in history through humble and patient love.”