At the conclusion of the General Chapter, on July 18, 2015, the members of the Chapter met with Pope Francis, at the so called "saletta" at the Vatican. Some Oblates confreres who were present at the Audience put their memories together of this unforgettable moment. Fr. Sergio Zirattu, omv, gathered them all in the following text.
Source :Notes of Oblates confreres present at the audience.
PRIVATE AUDIENCE WITH POPE FRANCIS
(July 18, 2015)
We were seated in the so-called “saletta” (little hall) next to the big Nervi Hall. The room was decorated with a tapestry representing the merciful embrace of the Father within a quadrant with symbols of creation and time. Thirty-three chairs were prepared for us – thirty for the members of the Chapter, the others for Pierre Paul, for Mark Avila and for the translator. The chairs were arranged in a circle, while the Pope’s chair was at the far end of the circle.
The Pope made his entrance at 12.05 p.m., and he was received with a hearty applause. He greeted everyone individually, beginning with Fr. Pierre Paul on the left, going around the entire circle until he reached Mark Avila on the right. The Pope greeted the Rector Major and said he recognized his face because he saw it on the internet. He embraced Fr. Luis Costantino as a sign of friendship, which was accompanied by a nice applause, as the two rejoiced.
Continuing his initial greetings, he stopped to chat with Fr. Greg Short, who reminded him of the times our students went to the Colegio Massimo in Buenos Aires, where Fr. Bergoglio was Rector. “You came from Villa Udaondo!”, the Pope recalled. He also stopped to talk with Fr. Daniel Gari, whom he recalled having met during a course of Spiritual Exercises. The Pope remained with us until 12.55 p.m. This was a great surprise for us for we expected an encounter of just a few minutes, knowing that the Pope had suspended all audiences during the month of July.
After sitting down, the Pope asked where the Council was seated. Dave presented the members (who were all seated to the right of the Pope), and then he began to speak through the translator, Alessio, who had come with us. Dave thanked the Pope for receiving us. He said that our General Chapter was very inspired by the Pope’s words.
After this, the Pope began to speak: “During the month of July all audiences have been suspended, but you had someone who knew how to insist” (alluding to Fr. Costantino). “What can I tell you? I know you from Buenos Aires. I know you work in Shrines and parishes: Santa Rita, San Roque (“Is it a shrine?”), he asked, turning to Luis. Many people go to visit shrines. They are places of mercy… But first of all you must be men of mercy. Be united. Love one another, otherwise the people will not understand. Let go of any division in order to love one another.”
The Pope seemed a bit tired at the beginning, but as he continued to speak and answered our questions he became energized. He always spoke slowly, making many long pauses,; he touches his head, his face with his thumb, as if he followed some furrows. His words were chosen and often very original.
The discourse continued along the logical theme of reconciliation and mercy. “You must be men of reconciliation.” He said that he knows we hear many confessions in certain places in Argentina. He praised the work of the Oblate Fathers in San Roque and Santa Rita. He then mentioned the Year of Mercy and the importance of reconciliation. We must be a Church open to reconciliation. This reconciliation begins in our communities, for it is useless to promote reconciliation among others if we are not living it ourselves.
The Pope said that we are indeed a small Congregation, but this is an advantage and a grace, for we know each other and don’t live in anonymity. We should be grateful for this.
The Pope felt an urgency to call for a Year of Mercy. This did not suddenly come to him during a sleepless night. He said that other Popes also stressed the importance of mercy: Paul VI, St. John Paul II in the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, through the feast of Divine Mercy and the canonization of St. Faustina, etc.
“To be merciful means to recall that we have received mercy.” The Pope spoke of the relationship between mercy and truth. In the parable of the prodigal son (one of the Pope’s favorites parables), “who tells the truth”? “The older son! He’s the one who presents to the father the truth about his younger brother: who ran away with his part of the inheritance and wasted everything. It is true that the younger son lived this way.” But the Pope stressed the fact that the father prefers mercy, which is equally true! “Their is a deeper truth. Mercy is the deeper truth!” God is mercy! The Father is this way: when the younger son tries to tell the truth, the father did not let him finish speaking. He embraced him and called for a great feast.
In his talk the Pope reminded us that the doctors of the law also told the truth, and Jesus respected them. However he harshly reprimanded them when they were hypocrites.
We are ministers of mercy first of all through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is the place where persons should experience pardon. We are called to cure wounds and to help people in their brokenness. At times people are wounded by us. The Pope told us to be careful not to be curious in the confessional, for many persons have had a negative experience because of this. We should not linger in details. If a penitent is confessing something difficult to confess and we have clearly understood what he/she is trying to confess, we should simply say: “I understand” and ask the person to move on to something else.
To make us understand the importance of mercy “in every case”, the Pope told us the story of a Capuchin confessor in Buenos Aires who spent many hours in the confessional, where long lines of people formed, rich and poor alike, priests and lay people. Everyone wanted to confess to this priest. They remember him as the “forgiving” Father. Once this priest presented a problem to the then Archbishop Bergoglio. On certain occasions he felt that he had been “too merciful”. He could not deny absolution to anyone. The Archbishop asked him whether he brought this problem to Jesus and what Jesus was telling him about this. The priest said: “Yes, I ask Jesus, and I tell him that at times I feel I have been too merciful, but that it is His fault because He gave me a ‘bad’ example. The Pope told this story with enthusiasm and his reference to the ‘bad example’ of our Crucified Lord was accompanied by a big smile of joy. “This is mercy!”, he said. The Pope then told us to avoid rigidity, which becomes clericalism.
“Persons are wounded and need to be welcomed and cared for”, the Pope told us, using the image of a field hospital for wounded soldiers, where emergencies and serious wounds are cared for, without worrying about particular things like measuring their cholesterol level…
The Pope then cited some examples of mercy in the Gospel:
- The woman caught in adultery: May the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone. They withdraw, beginning with the elders.
- The prayer of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple.
- The parable of the unforgiving servant. The master forgave him an enormous debt, but he was not willing to forgive the small debt of a fellow servant.
The second important point in the Pope’s talk was the Word of God, in which we must be rooted. We must preach the Word of God, not the Word of someone else. The Pope said that a good number of lay people and even religious have not read the entire Bible and sometimes not even the Gospels in their entirety. What they know they heard at Mass. The Pope also confided that a good number of priests and bishops have not read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church, but only part of it. As men of the Word, we need both Sacred Scripture and the Catechism.
When the Pope finished talking, and before receiving questions, Dave pointed out how dear his words were to us. Reflecting on the first two important points emphasized by the Pope above, Dave recalled the words of the Founder according to which an Oblate is to die either at the pulpit or in the confessional. As soon as the translator spoke these words to the Pope, he immediately smiled and his eyes lit up. He also said he very much appreciated these words of the Founder. Dave also mentioned the Spiritual Exercises, knowing that they are very dear to the Pope. The Pope encouraged giving them, but without being too rigid.
Carlo Rossi asked a question concerning the difficulty he encounters at times when in the confessional he meets someone who does not want to change or is not able to change. Pope Francis spoke of two cases: 1) the person who confesses out of habit and superficially. We should help such a person to become aware of this, but always using mercy; 2) Some persons simply do not succeed in changing, even if they want to. In this case as well the confessor should seek to help them with a “paternal catechesis” that leads them to reconciliation, but then entrust them to the Father’s mercy. The Pope also said that Mary plays an important role here. We should encourage persons to pray to Mary and she will take care of everything.
He told the story of some thieves who pray to Mary in a shrine in Calabria famous for tangerines (Nostra Signora del Mandarino). A legend says that when thieves die, they must await judgment like everyone else. Everyone is standing in line, waiting for St. Peter to let them enter. Mary watches from a window, sees the thieves and tells them to hide. After St. Peter has let everyone enter and closes the gate, Mary goes out and lets the thieves enter secretly.
The Pope’s description of devotion to Our Lady of the Tangerines was very lively. Reference to absolution marked the case of persons “who cannot change”, “who cannot turn around” and who “are repentant but cannot change”. Here the Pope’s gestures spoke more than his words: He made a sign of the cross and then indicated with his hands that the person could go in peace.
The Pope admitted that this legend is not theologically correct, but that there is a profound truth behind it. Mary is a mother who cares for these persons. He said that he firmly believes that Mary plays a special role in leading these souls to heaven. He also asked us to believe this.
Thomas Kleinschmidt asked the Holy Father to say something about the call to be a Church that “goes forth” especially to the poor, and how we can reconcile this with our charism. The Pope answered by saying yes, we must do this in the light of our charism. Even those living in a cloister are called to “go forth” without leaving the enclosure. We must recognize the various forms of poverty, spiritual and material, and go forth in answer to them. We need to reach the existential peripheries. Not only the materially poor need our help, but also the spiritually poor. He cited the Book of Revelation where Jesus knocks at the door asking to enter. The Pope sometimes has the impression that the Lord is knocking from the inside, asking to be let out.
Vincenzo Voccia asked a question that he thought might sound a bit banal. What would the Pope tell a religious who wants to be holy but who realizes that he/she cannot succeed? The Pope said he would congratulate such a person for realizing that he’s not a saint yet! Like the Pharisee and the publican, it is not you who succeed, but rather the Lord. Before becoming Pope (“and of course a Pope would not pray for such a thing!”) he said that whenever he met persons convinced of their own holiness he would ask the Lord to throw a banana peel in their path so that they would slip and fall and realize their need for mercy. Pope Francis also said that every time he visits a prison (in Argentina and now 4 prisons in Italy: Castrovillari, in Calabria, Isernia, Casal del Marmo and Rebibbia), he always feels like saying: here I should be too. “God loves us thus …”.
The Pope recalled the three steps to holiness in the mediation on the Two Standards – 1) poverty, to combat attachment to riches (“The devil enters through our wallet”); 2) the desire for humiliations to combat attachment to honors; 3) humility, to combat pride, which leads to all other vices.
We learn this from Christ Himself, who emptied Himself taking the form of a slave. We must become first of all like Christ. The Pope also spoke of three columns – imitation of Christ, the Beatitudes (a life-program) and Matthew 25 (upon which we will be judged).
Patrice Véraquin spoke of “Nunc coepi”; the Pope then recalled a song for children he really likes. At a certain point the song says that falling in itself is not the worst thing, but rather not getting up again.
Sergio Zirattu asked the Pope for some information on the document on brothers. He answered, saying that the document on brothers was completed by a commission of Superiors General a long time ago, but that the document unfortunately “disappeared” and was never published and promulgated. He used an Italian expression, saying that “someone put the document in a drawer”. When he expressed the desire to find the document, a copy of it suddenly appeared on his desk. He said that he immediately approved it, but asked that the text be revised, making it less theological and simpler to read.
Carlo invited the Pope to visit the Sanctuary of San Vittorino. The Pope asked for more information about the Shrine and at the end personally told Carlo that he was seriously considering visiting the Shrine.
We were all about to stand up for a short prayer and the Pope’s blessing, when Pope Francis as by some inspiration, suddenly added a last encouragement to form our students into priests who are solid, but also open and merciful with a sense of compassion. Then Dave turned to Roberto Jokanovic, encouraging him to ask the Holy Father to officially close the Chapter. The Pope seemed a bit surprised by this, and he made a joke by asking where the key was to close it. He then turned to Dave and asked for permission to close the Chapter. After a round of laughter, the Pope declared the Chapter to be closed.
He then guided us in the prayer of the Angelus in Latin. Afterwards he said goodbye to us one by one as we were leaving the room and gave each of us a blessed Rosary. After we all left the room, someone asked the Pope if we could have a group photo. He then went back into the room, sat down, and all of us gathered around him. The Vatican photographer took numerous photos. While he was leaving for the second time, Jeremy Paulin managed to arrange a selfie with the Pope. As we left Vatican City it seemed like our feet weren’t touching the ground.