Pope to religious in Sarajevo: true faith can move mountains
(Vatican Radio) In a meeting with religious in the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital, Sarajevo, Pope Francis departed from his prepared remarks to speak off-the-cuff to his audience, following the testimonies of two priests and a woman religious.
Below please find our report based on those testimonies and on the Pope’s prepared discourse which was delivered as read. In that written text, in Sarajevo’s Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral, the Pope said even a grain of “genuine” faith can move mountains.
Tireless spirit of service through sufferings, trials
Alluding to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s struggle to recover from a devastating three year war in the 1990s, Pope Francis said he thinks of “the sufferings and trials both past and present” in Christian communities there. “Although you have lived through these circumstances,” he told the religious, “you did not halt; you endured, and worked hard to confront personal, social and pastoral challenges with a tireless spirit of service.”
For Fransiscan Brother Jozo Puškarić, those pastoral challenges took a dramatic turn in 1992, when armed Serb policemen carted him off from his parish home to a concentration camp where he suffered terrific beatings and hunger in “inhuman” conditions. In words of greeting to the Pope, he said there were times when he wanted to kill himself and without the help of God and from others like a Muslim woman who gave him food, he never would have survived. He said he has never given in to hatred and has pardoned his captors.
Fr. Zvonimir Matijević told the Pope how he too was captured by soldiers in 1992 while caring for his small Catholic community of fifty in a majority Orthodox area not far from the war which had broken out in the neighboring Republic of Croatia. And while he was almost tortured to death, 8 other Catholic priests and many sisters who decided not to abandon their flocks were not as fortunate. Though his trauma progressed into Multiple Sclerosis, a cross he will bear for life, he said he is happy to be a priest of the Catholic Church and whole-heartedly forgives those who harmed him – in the hope they will convert to a path of goodness.
In another emotional testimony, Sr. Ljubica Šekerija of the Sisters of Divine Charity told Pope Francis that her order was running a home for elderly and disabled people in central Bosnia when the war broke out. In 1993, armed foreigners from Arab countries, she recounted, kidnapped her along with an ailing local priest and three lay Caritas aid workers. Many of the town’s non-Christians, she added, came out to ridicule them and applaud the militants as they were hoisted onto a truck.
She recalled being beaten and threatened, gun to her head, to convert to Islam. When one militant held a sword to her, demanding the priest crush her rosary beads with his feet, she pleaded with him to not give in to their captors’ demands to desecrate a sacred object. She preferred death. Finally, thanking Pope Francis for his encouragement of their vocations, she recalled the many other religious who suffered so greatly during the war.
The Pope acknowledged the small minority of Catholics who today account for 15% of the 4 million-strong population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, saying he could imagine how, “coupled with the failures that sometimes occur in ministry,” the religious could at times feel like Jesus’ disciples who, after toiling all night long, “caught no fish.” Muslims represent the majority of the population in addition to a large Serbian Orthodox community.
As an antidote to discouragement, the Pope entreated them to “abandon” themselves to trust in God order to “serve the Lord with joy, sowing hope everywhere.”
Holiness begets holiness
Pope Francis urged them to be witnesses to fraternity in their communities and to recall that if they want to help others to become holy, they should not neglect their own holiness. Religious, he stressed, should also be especially close to the poor and needy.
Meet people where they live – even those who have not heard of Christ
Wondering what it means to be a priest or consecrated person in Bosnia and Herzegovina today, the Pope said he believes it means “to carry out a pastoral ministry of hope, caring for the sheep that are in the sheepfold, but also going out in search of those who await the Good News and who do not know where to find it or who on their own cannot find their way to Jesus.” He invited them to go out and “meet the people where they live,” even in far away places and those “who may not yet have heard of Jesus Christ.”
Lay faithful “protagonists” of Church’s evangelizing mission
Pope Francis appealed, in particular, for the strong formation of Catholics in the faith and encouraged lay faithful “to be protagonists” in the Church’s evangelizing mission. For this, he exhorted the religious to develop Catholic communities capable of “courageous” evangelical witness.
Empathy with others, open your hearts to all who ask help
Priests and consecrated people are called, he said, “to live the anguish and the hope of the people; to work in concrete circumstances often characterized by tensions, discord, suspicions, insecurities and poverty.” And this takes the ability to empathize with others, the Pope added, saying “there is no greater witness than to be close to the spiritual and material needs of the faithful.” He invited them to never tire of opening their hearts to all who ask for help, and even to those who need it but don’t ask because they’re ashamed. And here, the Holy Father had a special word of thanks to Religious Sisters for their closeness and service to the faithful.
Humility vs a “self-absorbed elite”
Warning priests and men and women religious against the temptation to become “a self-absorbed elite,” Pope Francis reminded them that their pastoral ministry should be one of joy, and its effectiveness fruit of “a humble life…detached from worldly concerns.”
In his words to seminarians, Pope Francis invited them to take inspiration from the virtuous but brief life of the young Servant of God, Petar Barbarić, a 19th century Jesuit seminarian whose example “unites Herzegovina, where he was born, to Bosnia, where he made his religious profession.” Pope Bergoglio himself signed the decree recognizing the heroic virtues of the young man in March this year.
In concluding his remarks, Pope Francis urged the religious to turn “in childlike trust” to the Virgin Mary “when we find ourselves in difficulty, or when faced with a situation that makes us feel the depth of our powerlessness.” As a mother, he said, she wishes to transmit to us the secret of “a genuine faith…even a grain of it can move mountains.”
Below you can find the full text of Pope Francis’ prepared remarks to priests, men and women religious and seminarians in Sarajevo, but please note that his off-the-cuff remarks are available in a separate article on our website:
Dear brothers and sisters,
I greet you with affection, and I ask you to express my warmest greetings to the members of your Congregations and Institutes who, because of illness or old age, cannot be here but are spiritually united to us. I thank Cardinal Puljić for his words, as well as Sister Ljubica, Father Zvonimir and Brother Jozo for their testimonies. I thank you all for your service to the Gospel and to the Church. I come to your land as a pilgrim of peace and dialogue, to strengthen and to encourage my brothers and sisters in the faith, and in particular you, who are called to work “full time” in the vineyard of the Lord. He says to us, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). This certainty fills us with consolation and hope, especially when your ministry experiences difficulties. I think of the sufferings and trials both past and present in your Christian communities. Although you have lived through these circumstances, you did not halt, you endured, and worked hard to confront personal, social and pastoral challenges with a tireless spirit of service. May the Lord bless your efforts!
I can imagine that the Catholic Church’s being numerically a minority in your country, coupled with the failures that sometime occur in ministry, may at times make you feel like Jesus’ disciples when, although having toiled all night long, they caught no fish (cf. Lk 5:5). However, it is precisely in these moments, if we entrust ourselves to the Lord, that we experience the power of his word, the strength of his Spirit, which renews trust and hope in us. The fruitfulness of our service depends above all on faith: faith in Christ’s love, from which, as Saint Paul reminds us, and which he know from experience, nothing can separate us (cf. Rom 8:35-39)! Fraternity within our communities also sustains and strengthens us: fraternity among priests, among men and women religious, among consecrated lay persons, among seminarians. In fact, fraternity among all of us, whom the Lord has called to leave everything so as to follow him, gives us joy and consolation, and renders our work ever more fruitful. We are witnesses to fraternity!
“Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). With these words – recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – Saint Paul reminds us that if we want to help others become holy we cannot neglect ourselves, that is, neglect our own sanctification. And vice versa: dedication to God’s faithful people, being close to them in their lives, especially to the poor and the needy, helps us be conformed ever more to Christ. Attention to one’s own sanctification and pastoral charity towards people are two sides of the same coin and are mutually enriching. They must never be separated.
What does it mean, today, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for a priest or consecrated person to serve the Lord’s flock? I think it means to carry out a pastoral ministry of hope, caring for the sheep that are in the sheepfold, but also going out in search of those who await the Good News and who do not know where to find it, or who on their own cannot find their way to Jesus. It means to meet the people where they live, including those sheep who are outside the sheepfold, far away, who may not yet have heard of Jesus Christ. It means taking care of the formation of Catholics in their faith and in their Christian lives. Encouraging the lay faithful to be protagonists in the evangelizing mission of the Church. For this reason, I exhort you to develop Catholic communities open and “going forth”, able to welcome and to encounter, and to be courageous in their evangelical witness.
The priest, the consecrated person, is called to live the anguish and the hope of the people; to work in concrete circumstances often characterized by tensions, discord, suspicions, insecurities and poverty. Faced with these painful situations, we ask God to grant us hearts that can be moved, capable of showing empathy; there is no greater witness than to be close to the spiritual and material needs of the faithful. It is the task of us bishops, priests and religious to make the people feel the nearness of God; to feel his comforting and healing hand; to be familiar with the wounds and tears of our people; to never tire of opening our hearts and offering a hand to all who ask us for help, and to all those who, perhaps because they feel ashamed, do not ask our help, but who are in great need of it. In this regard, I wish to express my deep appreciation to Religious Sisters for everything they do with such generosity, and above all for their faithful and dedicated presence.
Dear priests, dear men and women religious, I encourage you to carry out joyfully your pastoral ministry whose effectiveness is the fruit of faith and grace, but also the fruit of a humble life, one detached from worldly concerns. Please, do not fall into the temptation of becoming a self-absorbed élite. The generous and transparent witness of priestly and religious life sets an example and gives encouragement to seminarians and to all those whom the Lord calls to serve him. Standing by the side of young men and women, inviting them to share experiences of service and prayer, you will help them to discover the love of Christ and to open themselves up to the call of the Lord. May the People of God see in you that faithful and generous love which Christ has left to his disciples as a legacy.
I wish also to offer a word to you, dear seminarians. Among the many beautiful examples of priests and consecrated men in your country, we remember in particular the Servant of God Petar Barbarić. His example unites Herzegovina, where he was born, to Bosnia, where he made his religious profession, as he also unites all priests, diocesan or religious. May this young candidate for the priesthood, whose life was so full of virtue, be a powerful example to each one of you.
The Virgin Mary is always near us, as a caring mother. She is the first disciple of the Lord, the first example of a life dedicated to him and to his brothers. When we find ourselves in difficulty, or when faced with a situation that makes us feel the depth of our powerlessness, let us turn to her with childlike trust. Then she always says to us – as at the Wedding at Cana – “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). She teaches us to listen to Jesus and to follow his word, but to do so with faith! This is her secret, which as a mother, she wishes to transmit to us: faith, a genuine faith, enough so that even a grain of it can move mountains!
By abandoning ourselves in trust, we can serve the Lord with joy, sowing hope everywhere. I assure you of a remembrance in my prayers and I bless each of you and your communities. I ask you please, do not forget to pray for me.