Pope Francis flew to a rain-soaked Medellin on Saturday to console orphans, the poor and sick — and to demand priests and ordinary Colombians look beyond rigid church doctrine to care for sinners and welcome them in.
“My brothers, the church is not a customs post,” Francis said. “It wants its doors to be open.”
Francis was tending to in-house church business on his penultimate day in Colombia, after having spent the first half of his trip encouraging its fragile new peace process.
Heavy rain forced him into a last-minute change of plans to reach Colombia’s second-largest city. Instead of taking a helicopter from the international airport outside Medellin, Francis drove down the Andes, delaying by nearly an hour the start of a Mass that drew as many as 1 million people.
Francis apologized for the delay as he arrived, thanking the crowd for “your patience, perseverance and courage.” But neither the rain nor the delay seemed to dampen the spirits of the faithful who came out to see him, dressed in colorful plastic ponchos to guard against the continued occasional drizzle.
They cheered wildly and waved white handkerchiefs and Colombian flags as Francis zipped around the grounds in his popemobile at an unusually fast clip to make up for lost time.
At the Mass, Francis urged Colombia’s conservative church to look beyond rigid rules and norms of church doctrine to go out and find sinners and minister to them.
“It is of the greatest importance that we who call ourselves disciples not cling to a certain style or to particular practices that cause us to be more like some Pharisees than like Jesus,” he said. Those in the early church who stuck so closely to the rules became “paralyzed by a rigorous interpretation and practice of that law,” he said.
Francis has frequently riled conservatives by criticizing their rigid interpretation of church norms, particularly in matters of sexual ethics and family life. He says such strict observation of norms is anathema to Jesus’ message of mercy and welcome to all, especially sinners.
His cautious opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion, for example, has sparked heated criticism from conservatives who say church teaching clearly forbids adulterous couples from receiving the sacraments.
In his homily, Francis said that such “cold attachment to norms” might bring comfort and assurance to Catholics who need the security of laws, but it belies the Gospel-mandated call to help others who aren’t so perfect and need consolation.
“We cannot be Christians who continually put up ‘do not enter’ signs, nor can we consider that this space is mine or yours alone,” he said. “Everyone has a place, everyone is invited to find here, and among us, his or her nourishment.”
After the Mass, Francis went to a century-old orphanage for abandoned girls. There he heard from Claudia Garcia, 13, telling how before she could even speak she lost her entire family when a guerrilla unit raided her village on a deadly rampage. The only survivors were a handful of children ages 2 to 8.
Then he presided over a meeting with priests, seminarians, nuns and their families, talking of the need for rectitude but also tolerance as they pursue their calling to spread God’s word.
He frequently went off script, at one point recalling with pain Medellin’s “drug assassins,” when the city was at the center of a thriving cocaine business that had converted it into the murder capital of the world.
Medellin, he said, “evokes for me the many young lives cut short, discarded and destroyed,” said Francis, who has frequently denounced the scourge of drug trafficking, thanks in great part to his experience ministering to addicted youth in the slums of Buenos Aires.
“I invite to remember and accompany this mournful procession, and ask forgiveness for those who destroyed the dreams of so many young people”
On Sunday, he heads to Cartagena to honor St. Peter Claver, a 17th century Jesuit who ministered to the tens of thousands of African slaves who arrived in the port to be sold. He returns to Rome on Sunday night.