In his prayer for the consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pope Francis lamented the collective sins of our world. We can’t see ourselves as free of guilt; we have all fallen. He said:
Yet we have strayed from that path of peace. We have forgotten the lesson learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two world wars. We have disregarded the commitments we made as a community of nations. We have betrayed peoples’ dreams of peace and the hopes of the young. We grew sick with greed, we thought only of our own nations and their interests, we grew indifferent and caught up in our selfish needs and concerns. We chose to ignore God, to be satisfied with our illusions, to grow arrogant and aggressive, to suppress innocent lives and to stockpile weapons. We stopped being our neighbor’s keepers and stewards of our common home. We have ravaged the garden of the earth with war and by our sins we have broken the heart of our heavenly Father, who desires us to be brothers and sisters. We grew indifferent to everyone and everything except ourselves. Now with shame we cry out: Forgive us, Lord!
By ourselves, we can only destroy and pillage. As Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote, “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod”. But as the consecration prayer goes on to remind us, all is not lost. God never abandons us, despite our sinfulness. In fact, it is particularly in our littleness, brokenness, and weakness that God comes to us. It shouldn’t take a catastrophe to remind us of our total dependence on God’s grace, although it often does. In his homily for the penance service that preceded the consecration, Pope Francis said:
Our confession gives the Father the joy of raising us up once more. It is not so much about our sins as about his forgiveness…
Let us recognize once more the primacy of grace and ask for the gift to realize that Reconciliation is not primarily our drawing near to God, but his embrace that enfolds, astonishes and overwhelms us. The Lord enters our home, as he did that of Mary in Nazareth, and brings us unexpected amazement and joy – the joy of forgiveness…
God knows your weaknesses and is greater than your mistakes. God is greater than our sins. He asks of you only one thing: that you not hold your frailties and sufferings inside. Bring them to him, lay them before him and, from being reasons for despair, they will become opportunities for resurrection. Do not be afraid! The Lord asks us for our sins. This brings to mind the story of a monk in the desert. He had given everything to God and lived a life of fasting, penance and prayer. The Lord asked for more. “Lord, I gave you everything,” said the monk, “what more is there?” The Lord replied, “Give me your sins.”
Too often, we try to start from our own strength. We attempt to perfect ourselves in a vain and futile attempt to make ourselves worthy of God’s love. Pope Francis presented Mary’s humility and trust in God as a counter-example to our ridiculous pride and self-reliance:
The Blessed Virgin Mary accompanies us: she cast her own anxiety upon God. The angel’s proclamation gave her good reason to be afraid…Yet Mary did not object. Those words–do not be afraid–were sufficient for her; God’s reassurance was enough for her. She clung to him, as we want to do tonight. Yet so often we do the exact opposite. We start from our own certainties and, when we lose them, we turn to God. Our Lady, on the other hand, teaches us to start from God, trusting that in this way everything else will be given to us (cf. Mt 6:33). She invites us to go to the source, to the Lord, who is the ultimate remedy against fear and emptiness in life.
The “Little Way” of St. Therese is based on this trust that God can enter into human weakness and transform it. She wrote in a letter to her sister, Marie:
What pleases Him is to see me love my littleness and poverty. It is the blind hope which I have in His mercy. There is my only treasure. Why should this treasure not be yours?
Therese also wrote in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul:
I am certain that even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, I should lose nothing of my confidence; rather I would hurry, with a heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into the Arms of my Jesus.
Pope Francis has a deep devotion to St. Therese; when he was a cardinal in Argentina, he would put little images of her in his letters. He has also spoken about her on several different occasions. During a speech at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia on October 1st, 2016, he said:
I would like to summarize these thoughts with some words from Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, whom we commemorate today. She shows her “little way” to God, “the trust of a little child who falls asleep without fear in his Father’s arms”, because “Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude” (Autobiography, Manuscript B, 1). Unfortunately, however, as she wrote then, and which still holds true today, God finds “few hearts who surrender to him without reservations, who understand the real tenderness of his infinite Love” (ibid). The young saint and Doctor of the Church, rather, was an expert in the “science of love” (ibid), and teaches us that “perfect charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice”; she reminds also that “charity cannot remain hidden in the depths of our hearts” (Autobiography, Manuscript C, 12). Together let us all implore today the grace of a simple heart, of a heart that believes and lives in the gentle strength of love; let us ask to live in peaceful and complete trust in God’s mercy.
The Pope’s devotion to St. Therese can provide a certain interpretive key to his pontificate. In particular, it can help to explain his well-known emphasis on mercy and dialogue. If we focus on our own efforts and struggles for perfection, we will become despondent, or worse, we will become puffed up with pride. We will become harsh and judgmental in our treatment of the weak because we will have forgotten about our own weakness and the mercy we have received.
By contrast, if we realize our own weakness and sinfulness before God, and remember how merciful God has been to us, our hearts will be transformed. The merciful love of God will then be able to flow through us; we will become conduits by which God’s mercy can reach our neighbors. We will be able to heal a broken world, to heal the relationships between individuals, communities, and nations.
In performing these acts of merciful love, Mary is again our model and our guide. The conclusion of the Pope’s homily focused on the Visitation and Mary’s journey “in haste” to her relative:
After having uttered her “Fiat”, the Mother of God set out on a long journey to the hill country, to visit a relative who was with child (cf. Lk 1:39). She went with haste. I like to think of this image of Our Lady going with haste. She comes with haste to help and take care of us. May she now take our own journey into her hands: may she guide our steps through the steep and arduous paths of fraternity and dialogue, along the way of peace.
Image: Vatican Media