"Without realizing it, each time that we think or see that we are few, or in many cases elderly, we experience the weight, the fragility more than the splendor, and our spirit begins to corrode from resignation," he said.
In turn, resignation can lead to the spiritual sin – also called a "disease" – of acedia, about which the Fathers of the Church issued sharp warnings since it essentially leads a person into despair, indifference and apathy regarding the faith and one's vocation.
"Few yes, a minority yes, elderly yes, but resigned no!" he said, explaining that the lines in this regard are fine, are can only be recognized by a process of self-reflection in front of the Lord.
"When resignation takes hold of us," he said, "we live with the imagination of a glorious past which, far from awakening the original charism, increasingly surrounds us in a spiral of existential heaviness. Everything becomes heavier and difficult to lift up."
He warned religious to stay away from this attitude, as well as the temptation to use the empty structures to get money by turning them into hotels or looking for other "human solutions" to the problem. Doing this, he said, "hinders or deprives us of joy."
And while he said he can't tell them which peripheries to go to, since that's the job of the Holy Spirit, who inspired their original charism, Pope Francis urged religious to choose them well and reawaken "the hope spent and sapped by a society that has become insensitive to the pain of others."
"Go and bring the 'anointing' of Christ," he said, telling them never to forget "that when you put Jesus in the midst of your people, they find joy…only this will render our lives fruitful and will keep our hearts alive."
In response to Crespi's question on what contribution deacons can give to the Church, the Pope said they have "a lot to give," specifically when it comes to managing the tensions and blessings of ministry and family life.
However, Francis also cautioned against viewing deacons as "half-priests and half-laity," because in reality "they are neither here nor there."
Looking at them in this way "does harm to us and does harm to them" and takes strength away from their vocation in the Church, he said, explaining that the deaconate "is a specific vocation, a family vocation that recalls service as one of the characteristic gifts of the people of God."
"The deacon is – so to speak – the guardian of service in the Church," Pope Francis said. Because of this, his specific mission consists of "reminding all of us that faith, in its various expressions – communitarian liturgy, personal prayer, different forms of charity – and in its various states of life – lay, clerical, familial – has an essential dimension of service."
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Speaking directly to the deacons, he said they are "a sacrament of service to God and to your brothers. A vocation which like all vocations is not only individual, but lived inside the family and with the family, inside the People of God and with the People of God."
Francis also answered Fr. Gioia's question on what can be done in order not lose the joy of evangelizing in the face of challenges such as secularism and ministering to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic flock with different religions.
In his response, the Pope said we shouldn't be afraid of challenges, because they are "a sign of a living faith, of a living community that seeks its Lord and has eyes and hearts opened."
Rather, what we must fear instead is "a faith without challenges, a faith believed to be complete, as if everything has been said and realized," because without challenges, there is a danger that our faith becomes "an ideology."
The Pope also spoke of the importance of recognizing the richness of the differences in the Church throughout its history, explaining that "the Church is one in a multifarious experience."
Although there can also be "horrors" and errors in the ways some interpret religion, he stressed the need to separate and distinguish between the "luminous aspects and the dark aspects" of each.
He also cautioned against confusing unity with uniformity and plurality with pluralism, saying that in both cases "what is being sought is to reduce the tension and remove the conflict or ambivalence to which we are subjected as human being."