VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Christians must stand firm in their faith but that is not the same as being rigid and unwilling to bend out of compassion for another, Pope Francis said.

God is love and “the one who loves does not remain rigid. Yes, they stand firm, but not rigid; they do not remain rigid in their own positions, but allow themselves to be moved and touched,” the pope said Aug. 20 before reciting the midday Angelus prayer with an estimated 10,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus Aug. 20, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Among the crowd were 29 seminarians who had just arrived to begin their studies at the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome. Pope Francis gave them a shoutout and wished them “a good formation journey.”

In his main talk, Pope Francis commented on the day’s Gospel reading, Mt 15:21-28, which tells the story of the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus brushes her off since she is not Jewish. But he sees her persistent faith and grants her request.

“Later,” the pope said, “the Holy Spirit would push the church to the ends of the world,” but at that point Jesus was preaching to the Jews.

“Faced with her concrete case, he becomes even more sympathetic and compassionate,” the pope said. “This is what God is like: he is love, and the one who loves does not remain rigid.”

“Love is creative,” he said. “And we Christians who want to imitate Christ, we are invited to be open to change.”

In the life of faith and in relationships with others, the pope said, people need to pay attention and to be willing “to soften up in the name of compassion and the good of others, like Jesus did with the Canaanite woman.”

Of course, he said, another aspect of the story is the woman’s strong and insistent faith that Jesus could heal her daughter.

The woman “probably had little or no awareness of the laws and religious precepts” of Judaism, but she draws near to Jesus, prostrates herself and has a “frank dialogue” with him, the pope said.

“This is the concreteness of faith, which is not a religious label but is a personal relationship with the Lord,” he said.

Pope Francis asked people to consider whether they show the compassion and flexibility of Jesus and the bold faith of the Canaanite woman.

“Do I know how to be understanding and do I know how to be compassionate, or do I remain rigid in my position?” he suggested they ask. “Is there some rigidity in my heart, which is not firmness? Rigidity is bad, but firmness is good.”

“Do I know how to dialogue with the Lord? Do I know how to insist with him? Or am I content to recite beautiful formulas?” he continued.

Pope Francis also drew attention to the ongoing conflict in Niger where a military coup overthrew the president in late July and where the bishops have opposed the idea of other countries in the region using their military to restore democracy.

“I join the bishops’ appeal in favor of peace in the country and for stability in the Sahel region,” the pope said. “I accompany with my prayers the efforts of the international community to find a peaceful solution as soon as possible for everyone’s benefit.”

“Let us pray for the dear people of Niger and let us also pray for peace for all populations wounded by war and violence,” he said. “Let us especially pray for Ukraine, which has been suffering for some time.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Jesus says to have no fear of ridicule, persecution or criticism for being faithful to the Gospel, but to be afraid of wasting one’s life chasing after trivial things, Pope Francis said.

“There is a cost to remaining faithful to what counts. The cost is going against the tide, the cost is freeing oneself from being conditioned by popular opinion, the cost is being separated from those who ‘follow the current,'” he said.

“What matters is not to throw away the greatest good: life. This is the only thing that should frighten us,” the pope said before praying the Angelus with some 20,000 visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square June 25.

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus June 25, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In his talk, Pope Francis reflected on the day’s Gospel reading (Mt 10:26-33) in which Jesus tells his disciples to “not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

The pope said the valley of Gehenna was used by the inhabitants of Jerusalem as a large garbage dump. Jesus used this image, the pope said, “in order to say that the true fear we should have is that of throwing away one’s own life.”

Jesus was telling the disciples that they do not need to be afraid of “suffering misunderstanding and criticism, of losing prestige and economic advantages to remain faithful to the Gospel, no, but of wasting your existence in the pursuit of trivial things that do not fill life with meaning,” the pope said.

Jesus had already spoken about the persecutions the disciples would undergo for being faithful to the Gospel, “a fact that is still a reality,” he said.

“It seems paradoxical: the proclamation of the kingdom of God is a message of peace and justice, founded on fraternal charity and on forgiveness, and yet it meets with opposition, violence, persecution,” he said.

“Jesus, however, says not to fear, not because everything will be alright in the world, no, but because we are precious to his Father and nothing that is good will be lost,” he said.

This requires renouncing “the idols of efficiency and consumerism,” he said, “so as not to get lost in things that end up getting thrown out, as they threw things out in Gehenna back then.”

It also means renouncing chasing after things and achievements instead of dedicating oneself to people and relationships, the pope said.

Some examples, he said, include: parents who know they “cannot live for work alone,” but also “need enough time to be with their children”; priests and religious who dedicate themselves to service without “forgetting to dedicate time to be with Jesus”; and young people who are busy with “school, sports, various interests, cell phones and social networks, but who need to meet people and achieve great dreams, without losing time on passing things that do not leave their mark.”

Pope Francis said the faithful should reflect on what they fear and consider the danger of “not pleasing the Lord and not putting his Gospel in first place” and pray to be “wise and courageous in the choices we make.”

After reciting the Angelus, Pope Francis prayed for the families and victims of violence in a women’s penitentiary in Támara, Honduras.

Reports said gang violence in the prison left 46 women dead June 20. One group of female prisoners, armed with guns and machetes, gained access to the cell blocks of their rivals, news reports said.

Some of the women, who were locked in their cells, were burned to death and attacked with gunfire and the machetes, reports said.

The pope said he was “very saddened” by the “terrible violence between rival gangs,” which caused death and suffering.

“I pray for the deceased; I pray for their families. May the Virgin of Suyapa, mother of Honduras, help hearts to open to reconciliation and to creating space for fraternal co-existence, even within prisons.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – A quiet hush covered the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square even though it was filled with thousands of people slowly winding their way around the colonnade into St. Peter’s Basilica to pay their last respects to the late Pope Benedict XVI.

Outdoor souvenir sellers were well-stocked with rosaries Jan. 2, but they seemed to have been caught off guard with a plethora of touristy tchotchkes and few to no images or mementos of the late pope.

The body of Pope Benedict XVI lies in St. Peter’s Basilica for public viewing at the Vatican Jan. 2, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

A damp chill hung in the air at 9 in the morning when the doors of the basilica opened to the public on the first of three days to view the pope’s body.

Special accommodations, however, were made for officials of the Roman Curia, Vatican staff and dignitaries who were allowed access from the back of the basilica and offered a place to sit or kneel on either side of the pope’s body, which was laid out in red vestments on a damask-covered platform.

Before the doors opened to the general public, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the archpriest of the basilica and papal vicar for Vatican City State, accompanied Italian President Sergio Mattarella and his entourage and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other government ministers to pay homage to the late pope.

The first in line outside the basilica was a group of religious sisters from the Philippines, who said they got there at 5:30 a.m.

People kept slowly arriving before sunrise, including a group from Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, led by Father Richard Kunst of Duluth. The priest told Catholic News Service that he was leading a tour of Rome the day Pope Benedict died.

Being able to see and pay homage to the late pope made the group part of “a really incredible piece of history,” he said.

Father Kunst said he was “a big fan” of Pope Benedict and “not sad at his passing” since the 95-year-old pope had lived a long life and “this is what he lived for — to be able to be with God.”

Father Felipe de Jesús Sánchez, who is from Mexico and is studying in Rome, told CNS that he saw Pope Benedict as “a simple man, humble, a model, who didn’t have as much fame as John Paul II, but he was the mind behind him.”

“For me, in my personal opinion, he was an authentic testimony of what it means to be Christian and a disciple of Jesus,” he said.

Father Matthew Schmitz was with a group of 90 young people from ECYD, an international Catholic youth organization affiliated with Regnum Christi.

“We were praying while we were waiting, we prayed the rosary” and went inside the basilica in silence, he told CNS.

He said he was in Rome for his studies when Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, and “I met him once after an Easter Mass,” which means “I’m still kind of processing” the fact that he found himself back in Rome when the pope died.

Ana Sofia de Luna, who is with ECYD and from Mexico, said, “It’s very sad that Pope Benedict died, but being here and seeing his body was a great blessing, to be able to ask for grace and seeing his body there was very impactful.”

Daniela Romero, a member of the group from Guatemala, said, “to be able to come here and see that we are representing and supporting the church is a blessing.”

Father Justin Kizewski happened to be traveling with a group of 45 seminarians and nine priests on pilgrimage from Madison, Wisconsin.

He said, “I’ve been privileged to accompany him through his pontificate: I was here in the square when he was elected, I was here in the square when he resigned, and now here when he’s lying in state.”

“When we read his writings, or heard him preach, or saw him celebrate the Mass, we really saw a man that cares for his sheep and gives us an example of how to care for ours,” he said.

Hannah O’Connor from Rhode Island credits Pope Benedict as being instrumental in her conversion during college, where “we read a lot of Ratzinger.”

His writings and pontificate were “an important part of my journey,” she said, and “I hope that people keep encountering his works and are brought to the one church through beauty, that’s what really drew me in.”

Sugey Viramontes from Mexico told CNS that, “without a doubt, his example of simplicity, and above all how he spent his last few years, always in prayer, is a great example for us young people.”

Inside the basilica, staff and security kept visitors moving smoothly and quickly, letting people stop before the pope’s remains long enough to make the sign of the cross and take a picture or two before being asked quietly to “Please, move along.”

However, many took advantage of the large nooks and niches in the basilica to press up against a wall or barricade and linger just a little while longer.

Pope Benedict’s mortal remains were to lie in repose in the basilica for three days until the late evening of Jan. 4; Pope Francis was scheduled to preside over the funeral Mass Jan. 5.

Rome authorities estimated there would be 30,000 to 35,000 people a day visiting the basilica and an estimated 60,000 people attending the funeral in St. Peter’s Square. But Vatican police said that 40,000 people had already entered the basilica to pray by 2 p.m. Jan. 2.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The day after Christmas the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which emphasizes how the story of Jesus’ birth is not a “fairy tale,” but a call to live as witnesses of the Gospel, Pope Francis said.

Marking the feast Dec. 26, a public holiday in Italy, Pope Francis led the recitation of the Angelus prayer at noon with thousands of visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis waves to visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for the recitation of the Angelus prayer Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

By putting the martyrdom of St. Stephen on the calendar the day after Christmas, he said, “the liturgy really seems to want to steer us away from the world of lights, lunches and gifts in which we might indulge somewhat in these days.”

The point, he said, is that “Christmas is not the fairy tale of the birth of a king, but it is the coming of the Savior, who frees us from evil by taking upon himself our evil: selfishness, sin, death.”

The Bible says St. Stephen was a deacon, the pope said, which “means that his first witness was not given in words, but through the love with which he served those most in need.”

At the same time, the Acts of the Apostles describes how Stephen spoke of Jesus to those he met, sharing with them the faith.

“However, his greatest testimony is yet another: that he knew how to unite charity and proclamation,” the pope said, by “following the example of Jesus” and forgiving those who were about to kill him.

St. Stephen shows that “we can improve our witness through charity toward our brothers and sisters, faithfulness to God’s word and forgiveness,” the pope said. “It is forgiveness that tells whether we really practice charity toward others and live the word of Jesus.”

Over the holidays, when many people are spending time with family and friends, there may be “someone with whom we have not gotten along, who has hurt us, with whom we have never mended the relationship,” the pope said. “Let us ask the newborn Jesus for the newness of a heart that can forgive: We all need a forgiving heart!”

Pope Francis also used the occasion once again to wish people peace — “peace in families, peace in parishes and religious communities, peace in movements and associations, peace for those peoples tormented by war, peace for the dear and embattled Ukraine.”

Noting that many people in the crowd held Ukrainian flags, the pope again said, “Let us ask for peace for this suffering people!”