Speaking to a small community of priests, religious and the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Morocco, Pope Francis Sunday said that consecrated people are not called to “govern” the people entrusted to them but to “love” them.
Despite being outnumbered in a country where 99 percent of society is Muslim and there are only an estimated 40,000 Catholics, Francis said Christians are called to be the “yeast” of Morocco.
“The problem is not when we are few in number, but when we are insignificant, [like] salt that has lost the flavor of the Gospel or lamps that no longer shed light,” he said.
“Our mission as baptized persons, priests and consecrated men and women, is not really determined by the number or size of spaces that we occupy, but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion,” the pope said.
“We do this by the way we live as disciples of Jesus, in the midst of those with whom we share our daily lives, joys and sorrows, suffering and hopes,” the pope said.
The paths of mission are not those of “proselytism,” Francis said, as it always leads to a “cul-de-sac.”
The pope’s remarks came in Rabat’s cathedral during the second day of his March 30-31 visit to Morocco. In total, there are 46 priests and 178 nuns in the country, a majority of whom are foreigners.There are only two Catholic bishops, both of whom hail from Spain, and only two dioceses.
Though Christians enjoy a relative freedom in the Sunni kingdom, as religious freedom is theoretically guaranteed by Morocco’s constitution, the situation is very different for those who want to convert from Islam to Catholicism.
When the pope entered the cathedral, he offered a reminder of the price Christians sometimes pay by greeting Brother Jean Pierre, the only survivor of the Tibhirine community massacred in Algeria. Seven monks killed the night of 26-27 March 1996 were beatified as martyrs last year on Dec. 8.
Francis also told those gathered, who weren’t enough to fill even half of the cathedral in downtown Rabat, that being a Christian isn’t about “adhering to a doctrine, or a temple or an ethnic group.”
“Being Christian is about an encounter,” he said.
“We are Christians because we have been loved and encountered, and not as the result of proselytism,” Francis said. “Being Christian is about knowing that we have been forgiven and are asked to treat others in the same way that God treated us.”
“Proselytism” generally refers to efforts to persuade people to adopt a particular religion. Modern popes, however, have used it to mean the use of pressure or inducements, contrasting it negatively with “evangelization,” by which they mean proposing the Christian message without attempting to impose it.
Quoting his predecessor St. Paul VI, Francis said that the Catholic Church is called to enter into dialogue with modern society but not to “follow a fashion,” and even less a strategy for increasing the raw numbers of faithful.
“The Church has to enter into dialogue out of fidelity to her Lord and Master, who, from the beginning, moved by love, wished to enter into dialogue as a friend and asks us to enter into friendship with him,” Francis said.
Going off the cuff, the pope quoted his predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who used to say that the Church doesn’t grow through proselytism but through witness.
Before departing, the pontiff thanked the religious for what they’re doing in Morocco, “daily discovering through dialogue, cooperation and friendship the way to sow a future of hope.”
It’s through dialogue, he said, repeating the common theme of both this trip and a recent one to United Arab Emirates, that one can unmask “attempts to exploit differences and ignorance in order to sow fear, hatred and conflict.”
Fear and hatred, Francis added, when nurtured and manipulated, can destabilize communities and leave them “spiritually defenseless.”
He also thanked those present for practicing what he described as an “ecumenism of charity,” which can become a path of communion between Christians, urging them to allow charity to become a “path of dialogue and cooperation” with Muslims too.
This idea of an “ecumenism of gestures” or of charity is something the Argentine pontiff has often praised, suggesting that lofty arguments can be left in the hands of theologians. In the meantime, he’s argued, people of good will are called to work together, especially for the vulnerable, as an opportunity to build a “culture of encounter.”
“I encourage you, then, with no other desire than to make visible the presence and love of Christ, who for our sake became poor in order to enrich us by his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9): continue to be neighbors to those who are often left behind, the little ones and the poor, prisoners and migrants,” he said.
The pope also greeted several nuns Sunday morning, including Italian Sister Ersilia Mantovani, now 97 years old, who’s been a Franciscan for 80 years and a missionary in Morocco for almost 55 years. In a 2009 interview, Montovani laughingly recalled that she was prepared to teach catechism classes, but when she arrived in Morocco there weren’t actually any local Christians to teach yet. Instead, she had to switch gears and begin service at a medical laboratory.
“From my experience, I’ve seen that you can live very well with Muslims,” she said. “They’re very tolerant, and they trust us a lot.”
“All of you are witnesses of a glorious history,” the pontiff said, after saluting Mantovani in his speech. “A history of sacrifices, hopes, daily struggles, lives spent in service, perseverance and hard work, for all work is hard, done ‘by the sweat of our brow’. But let me also tell you that you have a glorious history to remember and recount, but also a great history to be accomplished!”
Before addressing the religious, Francis visited a local agricultural center where three Spanish nuns give basic medical attention, feed some 150 children every day and teach adult women how to read.
In the early afternoon he was scheduled to say Mass for some 10,000 people, an event being described as the largest Mass in the country’s history. Afterwards he’ll head back to Rome, where he’s expected to answer questions from journalists aboard the papal flight.