ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Pope Francis told Madagascar’s bishops Saturday that the Catholic Church should participate in public life in order to promote the common good and that the bishops should not be afraid to voice their opinions on matters in society.
“Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good,’” the Pope said Sept. 7 in the Cathedral of Andohalo in Antananarivo.
“Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society,” he continued.
Pope Francis is in Madagascar as part of a six-day trip to three African countries. He was in Mozambique Sept. 5-6 and will be in Mauritius Sept. 9. Madagascar has 34 living bishops, both active and retired.
The Pope used the theme of his visit, “Sower of Peace and Hope,” as an analogy for the mission of a bishop.
“We bishops, like the sower, are called to spread seeds of faith and hope on this earth,” he said. “To do so, we need to develop that ‘sense of smell’ that can enable us to recognize more clearly whatever compromises, hinders or damages the sowing.”
“For this reason,” he explained, as it says in Evangelii Gaudium, “‘the Church’s pastors, taking into account the contributions of the different sciences, have the right to offer opinions on all that affects people’s lives, since the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being.’”
“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven,” he argued, noting that God wants his children to be happy on earth too, even if they are called to experience ultimate happiness in heaven.
Pope Francis told the bishops he knows they have many reasons for concern and are conscious of the responsibility to protect the dignity of their people. “Can a pastor with the heart of Jesus be indifferent to lives entrusted to his care?” he asked.
He encouraged them to listen to the Holy Spirit to discern how best to cooperate with civil society in the pursuit of the common good.
“The mark of such discernment will be that the proclamation of the Gospel demonstrates concern for all forms of poverty,” he stated, listing education, access to health care and employment with just wages as necessary for “general temporal welfare and prosperity.”
Pope Francis told the bishops that another part of their pastoral responsibility is defense of the human person.
They must be the first to preach the Gospel to the poor, he said, because “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel.”
“We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor,” he added.
He reminded them that they are not responsible for the entire process of evangelization and warned them that a pastor “who is a sower will not try to control every detail.”
He also urged the bishops to be spiritual fathers to their priests, encouraging them, guiding them and listening to them, but warned about the risk of “young rigid priests.”
On the topic of religious and priestly vocations, the Pope underlined the importance of the call to holiness, which he said is the “fundamental call, without which the others have no reason to exist.”
Accompanying people in their discernment to religious life and the priesthood takes patience, like the cultivation of the land, he said. “The harvest is plentiful and the Lord — who desires only real workers — is not limited in the ways he calls young people to make a generous gift of their lives.”
He added that efforts to form faithful and holy workers should include laypeople, who are also called to labor for the harvest, and thanked the bishops for the ways they are already doing this.
“In this way they will be able to contribute to the transformation of society and the life of the Church in Madagascar,” he said, adding a request that the bishops resist the urge to “clericalize” the laity.
“Dear brothers, this great responsibility for the Lord’s field should challenge us to open our hearts and minds and to banish the fear that tempts us to withdraw into ourselves and to cut ourselves off from others,” he concluded.
He mentioned that “two women protect this cathedral. The chapel nearby holds the remains of Blessed Victoire Rasoamanarivo, who was able to do much good and to defend and spread the faith in difficult times. There is also the statue of the Virgin Mary, whose arms, outstretched to the valley and the hills, seem to embrace everything.”
“Let us ask these two women always to enlarge our hearts, to teach us the maternal compassion that women, like God himself, feel for the forgotten of the earth and to help us to sow seeds of hope,” he said.
Following his meeting with bishops, Pope Francis stopped for a moment of silent prayer before the tomb of Blessed Victoire. The Malagasy woman was a teenage convert despite opposition from her family and defended the Catholic faith against Christian persecution in the country. She was beatified by St. John Paul II during his visit to Madagascar in 1989.