ASSISI (AFP) – Pope Francis on Friday called for the Catholic Church and its faithful to rid themselves of earthly concerns like St Francis of Assisi during a pilgrimage to the saint’s Italian hometown.
Speaking in the hall where the medieval saint is said to have taken off his robes in a gesture of humility, Francis said the Church should also “divest” itself and return to spiritual basics.
“The Church, all of us should divest ourselves of worldliness,” a visibly emotional pope said, adding: “Worldliness is a murderer because it kills souls, kills people, kills the Church.”
“Without divesting ourselves, we would become pastry shop Christians, like beautiful cakes and sweet things but not real Christians,” he said.
The Argentine pope also referred to the migrant shipwreck tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday in which 111 people are confirmed to have died and scores more are missing.
The world “does not care about the many people fleeing slavery, hunger, fleeing in search of freedom. And how many of them die as happened yesterday! Today is a day of tears,” he said.
“Let us hear the cry of those who weep, suffer or die because of violence, terrorism or war in the holy land Saint Francis loved so much, in Syria, in the entire Middle East, in the world,” the pope said in his homily.
The pope became the first to adopt the name of St Francis when he was elected in March, saying he was inspired by the saint’s humility and his teachings on peace and protecting God’s creation.
On his visit, the pope met with many poor and disabled people being aided by Catholic charities.
He told a group of handicapped children that their “wounds need to be listened to and recognised”.
In an address to the poor, he said: “Many of you have been stripped down by this savage world that does not give jobs, that does not help, that does not care about children dying of hunger.”
Some 100,000 pilgrims and over 1,000 journalists followed the pope as he visited the sites associated with the saint in the picturesque hill town of Assisi in Umbria in central Italy.
The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francesco Bernardone grew up an arrogant and war-mongering young man before his spiritual enlightenment.
The saint, who was born in 1182 and died in 1226, famously renounced earthly riches and donned a sackcloth to live like and for the poor.
Francis has called for a “poor Church for the poor” and has said he wants to overhaul the 2,000-year-old institution, making it less “Vatican-centric” and closer to ordinary people.
In a more light-hearted moment during his visit, the pope also had advice for married couples, urging them not to go to bed angry.
“Argue as much as you like, even if the plates fly that is fine, but never end the day without making peace.”
Francis was visiting Assisi with the eight cardinals from around the world he has handpicked to advise him on overhauling the scandal-hit Church government.
The council of cardinals is an unprecedented instrument of Church government that could end up reforming the Vatican, giving more power to local churches and making the Church less hierarchical.
The head of Italy’s crisis-hit government, Prime Minister Enrico Letta, was in the first row of the crowd attending Francis’ homily.
St Francis, who is also the patron saint of Italy, was said to have heard God tell him: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins” — a reference to the Church.
That is the same message that cardinals expressed for the new pope at the dramatic conclave in which he was elected earlier this year, following a wave of financial scandals and child abuse cases.
Francis’s visit to Assisi is different from that of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI because it is focused on the saint’s message of poverty rather than that of inter-religious peace.
The trip is the pope’s third in Italy after he visited the southern island of Lampedusa in July where he called for more tolerance of immigrants and Cagliari in Sardinia in September when he denounced “an idol called money”.