“The homily,” Pope Francis says, “is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people. In the homily, we can see how close we have been to God in prayer and how close we are to our people in their daily lives.”
Pope Francis underscored this during the Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica this Holy Thursday morning, as he underscored that priests’ fundamental role is to make faithful feel the presence of Jesus.
He began his Holy Thursday homily reminding his brother priests that when he was reading the texts of today’s liturgy, he kept thinking of the passage from Deuteronomy: “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (4:7), and specifically the closeness of God, our apostolic closeness.
Lord Always Draws Close to Us
Recalling the reading from the prophet Isaiah, the Pontiff noted how we contemplate the Servant, “anointed and sent” among his people, close to the poor, the sick, the prisoners, as well as the Spirit who is “upon him”, who strengthens and accompanies him on his journey.
Likewise, in Psalm 88, the Holy Father noted, we see God’s closeness, as He leads King David when he was young, and sustained him as he grew old, takes on the name of fidelity: closeness maintained over time is called fidelity.
“The Lord always comes to us, if we choose to draw near, as “neighbors”, to the flesh of all those who suffer, especially children.”
At the heart of today’s Gospel, we see the Lord through the eyes of his own people, which were “fixed on him” (Lk 4:20). Jesus stood up to read in his synagogue in Nazareth. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled it until he found, near the end, the passage about the Servant. He read it aloud: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed and sent me…” (Is 61:1).
Jesus, the Pope stressed, finds the passage and reads it with the proficiency of a scribe. “He could have been a scribe or a doctor of the law, but he wanted to be an “evangelizer”, a street preacher, the “bearer of joyful news” for his people, the preacher whose feet are beautiful, as Isaiah says.”
God’s Great Choice: Closeness
“This is God’s great choice: the Lord chose to be close to his people. Thirty years of hidden life! Only then did he began his preaching. Here we see the pedagogy of the Incarnation, a pedagogy of inculturation, not only in foreign cultures but also in our own parishes, in the new culture of young people…”
Closeness, the Pope stressed, is more than the name of a specific virtue. it is an attitude that engages the whole person, our way of relating, our way of being attentive both to ourselves and to others.
“When people say of a priest, “he is close to us”, they usually mean two things. The first is that “he is always there” (as opposed to never being there: in that case, they always begin by saying, “Father, I know you are very busy…”). The other is that he has a word for everyone. “He talks to everybody”, they say, with adults and children alike, with the poor, with those who do not believe… Priests who are “close”, available, priests who are there for people, who talk to everyone… street priests.”
Closeness, the Pope stressed, is crucial for an evangelizer because it is a key attitude in the Gospel (the Lord uses it to describe his Kingdom).
“We can be certain that closeness is the key to mercy, for mercy would not be mercy unless, like a Good Samaritan, it finds ways to shorten distances. But I also think we need to realize even more that closeness is also the key to truth. Can distances really be shortened where truth is concerned? Yes, they can. Because truth is not only the definition of situations and things from a certain distance, by abstract and logical reasoning. It is more than that. Truth is also fidelity.”
“It makes you name people with their real name, as the Lord names them,” Francis stressed, “before categorizing them or defining “their situation.”
We must be careful, the Pontiff warned, not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths.
“They can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern. Because the “truth-idol” imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words touch the heart. Much worse, it distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.”
Homily Is a Measure of a Pastor’s Closeness
The Pope suggested that priests meditate on three areas of priestly closeness “spiritual accompaniment”, “confession” and “preaching”.
Speaking on closeness in preaching, the Pope gave priests some homily advice.
“The homily is the touchstone “for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people” (Evangelii Gaudium, 135). In the homily, we can see how close we have been to God in prayer and how close we are to our people in their daily lives.”
The good news, he highlighted, becomes present when these two forms of closeness nourish and support one another.
“If you feel far from God, draw nearer to your people, who will heal you from the ideologies that cool your fervor. The little ones will teach you to look at Jesus in a different way. For in their eyes, the person of Jesus is attractive, his good example has moral authority, his teachings are helpful for the way we live our lives.”
Remember How Precious Each Person Is in Jesus’ Eyes
If you feel far from people, the Pope recommended, approach the Lord and His word.
“In the Gospel, Jesus will teach you his way of looking at people, and how precious in his eyes is every individual for whom he shed his blood on the Cross. In closeness to God, the Word will become flesh in you and you will become a priest close to all flesh. Through your closeness to the people of God, their suffering flesh will speak to your heart and you will be moved to speak to God. You will once again become an intercessory priest.”
A priest who is close to his people, Francis noted, walks among them with the closeness and tenderness of a good shepherd. In shepherding them, the Pope said, he goes at times before them, at times remains in their midst and at other times walks behind them.
“Not only do people greatly appreciate such a priest,” the Pope said, “even more, they feel that there is something special about him: something they only feel in the presence of Jesus. That is why discerning our closeness to them is not simply one more thing to do. In it, we either make Jesus present in the life of humanity or let him remain on the level of ideas, letters on a page, incarnate at most in some good habit gradually becoming routine.”
Pope Francis concluded, saying: “Let us ask Mary, ‘Our Lady of Closeness’ to bring us closer to one another, and, when we need to tell our people to ‘do everything Jesus tells them,’ to speak with one tone of voice, so that in the diversity of our opinions, her maternal closeness may become present. For she is the one who, by her ‘yes’, has brought us close to Jesus forever.”