Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Air Defense Stadium in Cairo, Egypt April 29, 2017. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano.
On Saturday Pope Francis told Egyptian Catholics that truly living the faith means ridding ourselves of hypocritical attitudes and focusing on the only obsession that counts: loving others, no matter how hard it is.
“God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity! Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him!” the Pope said April 29.
True faith, he said, “is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane. It moves our hearts to love everyone without counting the cost, without distinction and without preference.”
Pope Francis spoke to the 15,000 people who attended his Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo as part of his April 28-29 visit to Egypt. The trip comes largely as the result of a recent thawing in relations between the Vatican and the prestigious al-Azhar University, one of the highest institutional authorities in Sunni Islam, which had been strained since 2011.
The visit also took place in wake of increasing attacks on Egypt's Coptic Community, and as such is meant to show support for Christians as well as cement Catholic-Muslim relations.
Egypt has around 272,000 Catholics and 213 parishes out of a total population of nearly 89 million. The country is predominately Muslim, with Christianity, including Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Catholics, making up only 10 percent of the population.
In his homily, which was given in Italian with Arabic translation, Francis spoke about the qualities of a sincere faith, pointing out that we are called to love, serve, and help our brothers and sisters – never treating them like an enemy.
True faith, he said, “spurs us on to spread, defend and live out the culture of encounter, dialogue, respect and fraternity.” It also gives us “the courage to forgive those who have wronged us,” and to live out the corporal works of mercy.
Continuing, the Pope said “true faith leads us to protect the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our own. Indeed, the more we grow in faith and knowledge, the more we grow in humility and in the awareness of our littleness.”
His words centered on the day's Gospel passage for the third Sunday of Easter, which tells the story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The experience of the disciples, he said, can be summed up in three words: death, resurrection and life.
At first the disciples are full of disappointment and despair, not understanding how God could have allowed Jesus, their Saviour, to be crucified, Francis observed. However, Jesus then approaches and walks with them, turning their despair into life.
“They could not understand why Almighty God had not saved him from such a disgraceful death,” he said. “The cross of Christ was the cross of their own ideas about God; the death of Christ was the death of what they thought God to be.”
However, in reality, “it was they who were dead, buried in the tomb of their limited understanding,” the Pope continued, adding: “How often do we paralyze ourselves by refusing to transcend our own ideas of God, a god created in the image and likeness of man!”
“How often do we despair by refusing to believe that God's omnipotence is not one of power and authority, but rather of love, forgiveness and life!”
Eventually, it is in the “breaking of the bread,” the Eucharist, that the two disciples recognize the Risen Jesus and are “filled with joy, confidence and enthusiasm, ready to bear witness,” he said.
Unless we also “tear apart the veil clouding our vision and shatter the hardness of our hearts and our prejudices, we will never be able to recognize the face of God.”
It was precisely in this darkness and despair that Jesus approaches and “turns their despair into life,” Francis said, explaining that “when we reach the depths of failure and helplessness, when we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are the best, sufficient unto ourselves and the center of our world, then God reaches out to us to turn our night into dawn, our affliction into joy, our death into resurrection.”
We must follow the same path of the disciples, not remaining in doubt or despair, focused only on the cross, but coming to realize the truth and hope of the resurrection, he said, stressing that “we cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power.”
This experience must also translate into how we treat others, he said, saying “the experience of the disciples on the way to Emmaus teaches us that it is of no use to fill our places of worship if our hearts are empty of the fear of God and of his presence.”
“It is of no use to pray if our prayer to God does not turn into love for our brothers and sisters. All our religiosity means nothing unless it is inspired by deep faith and charity.”
The Pope said that in this sense, it's useless to be concerned about our image, “since God looks at the soul and the heart and he detests hypocrisy. For God, it is better not to believe than to be a false believer, a hypocrite!”
Just like the disciples saw and believed, returning immediately to Jerusalem to share their experience, the Church also “needs to know and believe that Jesus lives within her and gives her life in the Eucharist, the scriptures and the sacraments,” he said.
Francis concluded by encouraging those present, “filled with joy, courage and faith” like the disciples of Emmaus, to “return to your own Jerusalem, that is, to your daily lives, your families, your work and your beloved country.”
“Do not be afraid to open your hearts to the light of the Risen Lord, and let him transform your uncertainty into a positive force for yourselves and for others,” he said.
“Do not be afraid to love everyone, friends and enemies alike, because the strength and treasure of the believer lies in a life of love!”