On Monday morning, 25 April, Pope Francis met with about 1,000 Missionaries of Mercy in the Paul vi Hall. “It is up to us, with our ministry, to give voice to God”, he said, and “to show the face of his mercy” to others. In his third meeting with these Missionaries, the Holy Father used the biblical figure of Ruth to show that “God does not abandon those who entrust themselves to him, but rather meets them with a love that repays any other desire”. The following is a translation of his address, which he delivered in Italian.
Dear Missionaries of Mercy,
Good morning and welcome!
I wanted to meet you again, because I entrusted to you the mission that is closest to my heart: being an effective tool of God’s mercy. I see that every year the number of Missionaries of Mercy increases: here there are other problems, but it increases. This brings me joy, because it means that your presence in the particular Churches is considered important and valid. I thank Archbishop Rino Fisichella for his words, and for the information he has provided regarding your important missionary effort. And for the truth, he has been faithful to the inspiration of God, because this is one of his inventions; but he is the one who gave me this idea and encouraged me, because he saw the Church’s need for your presence, your availability and your closeness to forgive: to forgive without passing through so many channels. As I wrote in the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, “Evangelization takes place in particular through the proclamation of divine mercy, by means of multiple approaches and expressions. The specific action of the Missionaries of Mercy contributes to this purpose in a special way” (Art. 59 §2). I wanted to include you there, in the apostolic Constitution, because you are a privileged instrument in the Church today, and you are not a movement that is there today and is not there tomorrow, no, you are in the structure of the Church. This is why I wanted to include you there. I hope, therefore, that you may grow further, and for this reason I address to the bishops my desire that they will be able to identify holy, merciful priests, ready to forgive, to become full-fledged missionaries of Mercy.
In our first meeting (9 February 2016) I paused to reflect with you on the figure of Noah, and on the garment his sons placed over him to cover the shame of his nakedness. At that moment I invited you to “[shield] sinners with the garment of mercy, so they may no longer be ashamed and may recover the joy of their filial dignity”. In our second meeting (10 April 2018), with the words of the prophet Isaiah, I asked you to be a sign of consolation to help those who approach you to grasp the just sentiment that God never forgets anyone, nor does he abandon anyone, to the extent that he wanted to tattoo on his hand the name of every creature (cf. Is 49:16).
Today I wish to offer you another biblical figure who may inspire your ministry. She is Ruth, the Moabite woman who, despite coming from a foreign country, entered fully into salvation history. The book dedicated to her presents her as David’s great-grandmother (Ruth 4:18-22) and the Gospel of Matthew expressly mentions her among Jesus’ ancestors (cf. 1:5). Ruth is a poor girl of modest origin; she becomes a widow very young, and moreover lives in a foreign country that considers her an intruder and not even worthy of solidarity. Her condition is one that in today’s culture no one would be able to fully understand. Ruth depended on others for everything: before marriage she depended on her father and after marriage on her husband; as a widow she should be protected by her children, but she has none; she is marginalized in the village where she lives because she is a Moabite; she is without support and without any defence. In short, her life is among the worst imaginable and seems to have no future.
As if all of this were not enough, the sacred writer adds that the only person to whom Ruth is attached is her mother-in-law, Naomi. However, Naomi’s situation too is certainly not among the best: she is a widow, she has lost her two sons and she is too old to have others; she is therefore destined to live without leaving any descendants. Naomi, wh0 had emigrated to the land of Moab, decides to return to Bethlehem, her land of origin, and faces a long and tiring journey. Naomi feels that God has not been benevolent towards her, and states this clearly: “the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me” (Ruth 1:13). Such is her sadness that she does not even want to be called by her name Naomi, which means “my sweetness”, but “Mara”, “embittered” (1:20). This woman was completely down, down.
Despite all this, Ruth decides to bind her own life to that of her mother-in-law, and says to her with conviction: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also” — it is a form of swearing — “if even death parts me from you” (1:16-17). Truly generous words — thinking of a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law, whose relationship is traditionally not the best — because the future ahead of Ruth is certainly not serene. And this paints her as a generous woman who really loves her mother-in-law.
The two women set out on their journey towards Bethlehem, but every day Ruth must go in search of food to live; her days are spent in uncertainty and precariousness. The question arises: was Ruth right to tie herself to her mother-in-law? She was still young — she would certainly have found another husband in Moab... In short, why did she take such a risky decision? The holy book already provides a first answer: Ruth trusted God and acted out of great affection for her elderly mother-in-law, who otherwise would have been left alone and abandoned. Think that in that time, widows were abandoned, and no one took care of them. Ruth’s story will have a happy ending: while she is gathering, she meets Boaz, a rich nobleman who is well disposed towards her; he recognises that her generosity towards her mother-in-law gives her such a dignity that she should no longer be considered a foreigner, but a full member of the people of Israel. The foreign and poor woman, forced to search for daily food, is rewarded for her faithfulness and goodness with an abundance of gifts. The words of the Magnificat, which Mary pronounces, are anticipated in the life of Ruth: “He has exalted those of low degree / He has filled the hungry with good things” (Lk 1:52-53).
We can also draw from this an important teaching for us. Ruth is not a daughter of Abraham by blood; she remains a Moabite woman and will always be called thus, but her fidelity and generosity enable her to enter the people of Israel with full rights. Indeed, God does not abandon those who entrust themselves to him, but rather meets them with a love that repays any other desire. Ruth shows the characteristics of mercy when she does not leave Naomi alone, but instead shares her future with her; when she is not satisfied with staying close to her, but rather participates with her in the faith and the experience of being part of a new people; when she is determined to overcome every obstacle in order to remain faithful. What we draw from this is truly the face of mercy that is made manifest with compassion and sharing.
This figure of Ruth is an icon of how we can overcome the many forms of exclusion and marginalization that lurk in our behaviour. If we reflect on the four chapters that compose this short book, we will discover an incredible richness. Those few pages bring out the trust in the love of God that goes out to everyone. And there is more: it shows that God knows the inner beauty of people, even if they do not yet have the faith of the chosen people; he is attentive to their sentiments, especially the fidelity, the loyalty, the generosity and the hope that dwells in their hearts when they are put to the test. In its simplicity, this account reveals a surprising wealth of meanings. Being generous is shown to be the right and courageous choice that must never be lacking in our priestly existence.
Dear brother Missionaries of Mercy, in the Book of Ruth God never speaks. Never. Not a single word. He is named many times; the characters often make reference to him, but he remains silent. We discover, however, that God communicates precisely through Ruth. Every one of her gestures of goodness towards Naomi, who considers herself “bitterly dealt with” by the Lord, becomes the tangible sign of the Lord’s closeness and goodness. Through this figure, we too are invited to grasp the presence of God in people’s lives. The journey that must be experienced is often arduous, difficult, at times even full of sadness; God however places himself on this path to reveal his love. It is up to us, with our ministry, to give voice to God — this is important: we Missionaries of Mercy give voice to God — and to show the face of his mercy. It depends on us. Someone who meets one of you must change, must change his or her feelings, thoughts about God: “Now, with this missionary, I have understood, I have heard who God is”. Let us never forget that God does not act in the daily lives of people through dramatic acts, but in a silent, discreet, simple way, so as to manifest himself through people who become the sacrament of his presence. And you are a sacrament of God’s presence.
I beg you to stay away from any form of judgement, and always to prioritise the will to understand the person before you. Never stop at a single detail, but look at the totality of his or her life. It is a life that kneels to ask for forgiveness! And who am I to not forgive? “But this canon says this, so I can’t...”. Be quiet. Before you is a woman or a man asking you for forgiveness, and you carry forgiveness in your pocket. Will it remain in your pocket? Or will your generosity give it? “But we have to be precise in forgiveness...”. No, you are not suited to be a missionary of mercy. Go to a charter house to pray for your sins. This is not right. God does not stop at appearances, and if he were to judge only by faults, probably no one would be saved! Who among us does not have them? This is not how mercy is expressed. It knows how to look into the heart of a person, where there dwells the desire, the longing to return to the Father and to his house (cf. Lk 15:18-20).
Here then is the exhortation I leave you: always have the blanket of mercy at hand — let’s think about Noah — to envelop with its warmth all those who approach you to be forgiven; offer consolation to those who are sad and lonely; be generous like Ruth, because only in this way will the Lord recognise you as his faithful ministers. “But, Father, you know that in this modern world, with so many strange things, so many new sins, you never know, because I forgive him, but maybe tomorrow he will return asking forgiveness for something else”. And what baffles you? Peter asked the same question to the Lord, and the answer was: “seventy times seven”. Always. Always forgiveness. Do not put it off. “No, I have to consult the moralist...”. Do not put it off. Today. “But I don’t know if he is sincere”. Look, it is a person asking you for forgiveness: who are you to ask if they are sincere or not sincere? You take their word for it, and forgive. Forgive always. Please, forgive always. With the forgiveness of Christ we do not play, we do not joke.
And, before concluding, I would like — I’ve said this on other occasions — to remember a great confessor, rather two, who I met in my previous diocese. One was a [member of the] Sacramentinos”, a man in charge, he was the Provincial, but he never left the confessional. And there was a line! He was elderly, and he listened to you, and the only thing he said was: “Well, well, well...”. God is good, and goodbye. He wouldn’t stick his nose in situations. And I sinned against this man, because, when he died, I went and saw that the casket had no flowers; I went to the florist, I bought flowers and brought them to him. And as I was arranging the flowers, I saw the rosary... and I stole the cross. And I said to him: “Give me half of your mercy”. Thinking about Elisha: “Give me half of your mercy”. And I carry the cross here inside, always, with me. A good man. Another is still alive: the other day I called him on the phone because it was his 95th birthday. He hears confessions all day. An enormous line of people: men, women, children, young people, priests, bishops, nuns, everyone, all of God’s people. And he confesses. And one day he came to me at the episcopate and he said to me: “Listen, I have some scruples, because I think I forgive too much”. He is a good Capuchin. The other was a Sacramentino, this one a Capuchin. “And what do you do, when you forgive too much?” — “Eh, I go to the chapel and say: ‘Lord, forgive me, because I forgave too much’, but immediately I feel something inside and I say to the Lord: ‘But be careful, because it was you who set the bad example: You forgave too much!’”. Think about these two examples, and do not tire of forgiving, because He never tires of forgiving. Never.
I bless you all and I accompany you with my prayer, so that your ministry may be fruitful. And do not forget to pray for me. Thank you!