Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do since they do not practise what they preach. Their words are bold but their deeds are few … woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites” (Mt. 23:1-3).
Pope Francis applied this teaching of Jesus to Catholics who lead a double life, calling them hypocrites in his homily on Feb. 16 during Mass at his residence, Domus Sanctae Marthae.
Hypocrisy is a false claim to be virtuous and to pretend to be what one is not. To be clear, Francis did not hesitate to give blatant examples of these faithful who say one thing and do another. They lead a double life and say: “I am very Catholic; I always go to Mass … I belong to my parish associations,” but these hypocritical people do not pay their workers a just wage, exploit people, do dirty business, launder money, and scandalize others.
Then Francis envisaged one such person arriving at the gates of heaven and asking God: “God, don’t you remember me? I went to church. I was close to you. Don’t you remember all the offerings I gave?” To which Francis replied, taking God’s voice: “Yes, I remember that you did dirty business, you stole from the poor. I don’t know you.” Sternly, the Pope continued: “It is better to be an atheist than to be a Catholic like that!”
Pope Francis wants his faithful Catholics to be trustworthy and genuinely holy, pure and sincerely spiritual, not displaying false piety, phoniness and pharisaic hypocrisy. He wants that we be more attentive to the wishes of our Redeemer who saved us through his Passion and death.
In this precious time of Lent, we should take advantage of fasting and abstinence to reconcile our Christianity and aspire to the sanctity of our redemption. As a loving custodian, He continues to protect those who abide with Him: “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they belong to you, Father” (Jn.17:10-12).
Pope Francis is trying to implement this in our Catholic Church, conscious of the sacrifices Jesus assumed through his passion and death, so that our spiritual life becomes more efficient and perfect. But the social compromises, the negligence in worshipping him, and the lukewarm service we offer him impede a fuller attachment to our religious devotion.
This lack of interest is clearly manifested in the decrease in religious practice. Youth especially are abandoning Sunday Mass, and still worse, they are losing the sense of sin. Living together in common law, they do not hesitate to receive Communion if, occasionally, they are present at a wedding or a funeral Mass.
But why has Francis selected being an atheist as better than a hypocritical Catholic?
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the Greek word “atheism,” which means “without God.” The term was originally used in Greece for all those who, whether they believed in God or not, did not believe in the official gods of the state. Of such men, Socrates was the classic instance.
In the Roman Empire, the term was applied in a similar sense to Christians by the pagans, but sometimes Christians like St. Polycarp would turn the term against their persecutors.
Modern atheism is usually seen by its adherents as a way of safeguarding an affirmation of human freedom and creativity, and man’s ability to control his own destiny. The dialectical materialism of Marxism is a case in point, but the same concerns can be detected in secular existentialism, which is usually atheistic, as in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
The frustration that Pope Francis experiences is only natural when he looks at St. Peter’s Basilica and sees that the confessionals are empty. The picture of the Pope hearing confession went viral around the world, and he himself has travelled far abroad in an attempt to reach out and unite a million people, but many in the crowds who greeted him will not go to their parish for Sunday Mass.
Therefore, we need to fulfill what the fathers of the Second Vatican Council pondered in Gaudium et Spes, The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World: “Unless God enters into our understanding of the purpose of each person, that person remains an unanswered question. Man longs to escape from his sinfulness, but, finding himself powerless and lost, he allows himself to be found by his heavenly Father who sent his Son to seek that which was lost.”