VATICAN CITY — “May the Lord soften the hearts of the rigid, of people who are enclosed in the law and condemn everything outside of the law.” This was Pope Francis’ prayer this morning at Holy Mass, in the chapel of his residence at Santa Marta.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper concelebrated today’s Mass with Pope Francis.
Beginning with the first reading, in which St. Stephen is stoned to death by the temple authorities in Jerusalem (Acts 7:51-59;81-1), the pope reflected on the witness of Christian obedience. Like Jesus, the pope said, St. Stephen was “a great witness of obedience,” and that is why he was persecuted. Those who stoned Stephen did not understand God’s word.
Fools vs. hardened hearts
Stephan called them “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” the pope noted. Calling a man “uncircumcised,” he said, essentially meant calling him a “pagan.”
According to the pope, there are various ways one can fail to understand God’s word. For example, when Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he called them “foolish.” This was not an expression of praise, but it was also not a strong word either, unlike Stephen’s expression, he said,
“They did not understand; they were afraid because they didn’t want problems; they had fear, but they were good men, open to the truth,” the pope said.
When Jesus rebukes them, they let his words enter and their hearts burned within them, while those who stoned Stephen “were furious” and did not want to listen.” This, according to the pope, is the tragedy of a “closed heart.”
In Psalm 94, he continued, the Lord admonishes his people, exhorting them not to harden their hearts. Then, through the prophet Ezekiel, he makes a “beautiful promise”: to change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, i.e. one that “knows how to listen” and to “receive the witness of obedience”. Pope Francis continued:
“And this makes the Church suffer very, very much: closed hearts, hearts of stone, hearts that do not want to open themselves, that don’t want to feel; hearts that only know the language of condemnation: they know how to condemn. They don’t know how to say: “But, explain to me why you are saying this? Why this? Explain it to me…’. No: they are closed. They know everything. They don’t need any explanations.”
Jesus also reproached them for having killed the prophets “because they said what you didn’t like,” Francis recalled. Indeed, he said, a closed heart doesn’t allow the Holy Spirit to enter:
“There was no space in their hearts for the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, today’s Reading says that Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, understood everything: he was an obedient witness of the Word made flesh, and this is what the Holy Spirit does. He was full. A closed heart, a stubborn heart, a pagan heart does not allow the Holy Spirit to enter, and it feels self-sufficient.”
The two disciples of Emmaus “are us,” Pope Francis told those in attendance: with “many doubts” and “many sins,” and who often “want to distance ourselves from the Cross, from trial … but we make room for hearing Jesus who makes our hearts burn.”
The other group includes those who are “closed in the rigidity of the law” and who don’t want to hear, he said.
Pope Francis concluded by recalling the woman caught in adultery. “Let each of us enter into a dialogue between Jesus and the victim of those with hard hearts: the woman caught in adultery.” To those who wanted to stone her, Jesus responds only by saying, “Look inside yourselves”:
“And today, let us look at the tenderness of Jesus: the witness of obedience, the Great Witness of God who have his life. He shows us God’s tenderness toward us, toward our sins, toward our weaknesses. Let us enter into this dialogue and let us ask for the grace that the Lord might soften a little the hearts of the rigid, of people who are always enclosed in the law and condemn everything that is outside of that law. They do not know the the Word came in the flesh, that the Word is the witness of obedience. They do not know that God’s tenderness is capable of taking away a heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh.”