I’ve never met Pope Francis, but like so many others, I am very excited about his visit to Washington in September. I, too, am inspired and energized by his message and his examples of living out the Gospel, loving God and neighbor, and serving the poor.
These have always been foundational elements of our Christian faith, but seeing Francis “walk the walk” has reminded all of us of their importance. In our day to day routines, it’s easy to lose sight of this call to serve, and Francis has reawakened it – not simply as a mandate, which can sometimes feel burdensome, but as a source of joy and a way to experience God more fully.
Francis’s papacy coincides with my current assignment at Catholic Charities of Washington, so I feel an especially strong kinship with his message. And while serving the poor would not be possible without agencies and programs, he reminds us that at its core it is about one-to-one relationships that give the other person dignity as a fellow child of God.
We see this in the memorable images of his papacy. I’m sure there are moments that have touched you. I think of his desire to be inclusive as he has washed the feet of men, women, children, prisoners, elderly, Christians, Muslims and others the last few Holy Thursdays. I think of his tender embraces of those with disfigurations that might give others pause, and I imagine Jesus looking similarly as he touched the lepers.
I also love Pope Francis’s image of the Church as a field hospital. He has said: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.” It reminds me of another line I have liked for many years: “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.”
For me, Pope Francis affirms many of the reasons I became a priest. He affirms my commitment to finding ways to be inclusive rather than exclusive – to say yes as much as possible, and no only when you have to. He affirms my commitment to the poor. And his personal commitment to each individual he encounters affirms my desire to treat every person with dignity.
I have tried my best to do all of these throughout my priesthood, but honestly, there were times I didn’t give them the attention I should have. This wasn’t a conscious decision, just a result of a busy schedule. I would get plenty of phones calls and knocks on parish doors, and I would do what I could to help, but I was often being reactive instead of proactive. Yes, responding to a need is also living out the Gospel, but Francis challenges us to do more than that. We need to make an effort to be more aware of the needy around us and become a part of the solution.
Sharing your time, talent and treasure are wonderful ways to do that. I see this every day in our incredible staff, donors and volunteers. I would also suggest something even simpler that each and every one of us can do at any given moment: say hello. One of our Catholic Charities pledge programs is called “Hello Neighbor,” and the question is whether we can all find a way to stop and talk to the homeless. Instead of walking by, can we offer a greeting and a smile? By doing so, we give the priceless gift of dignity to those who feel they may not have any.
In his first apostolic exhortation, Joy of the Gospel, Francis writes:
“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.”
And he reminds us that our response has as much impact on ourselves as it does on those we help:
“They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei [sense of the faith], but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.”
This, to me, is the Francis effect, which is ultimately the Jesus effect. We are truly blessed that he will visit Washington and that we will get to see his humility, compassion and love in our own city. This is more than just an exciting event; it is a real opportunity for us as a city, as an archdiocese and as children of God to ask ourselves how well we are living the Gospel. I will share thoughts in future articles about ways we can all prepare for his arrival, and I know from my own experience that he will find a loving, generous and faith-filled community.