Monday, July 28, 2014

My Love Affair with Francis

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of participating in "Pope Francis 101," a gathering sponsored by the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville. I was one of four speakers, the others being Rev. Joe Phelps, Fr. John Burke, and Sr. Jean Ann Zappa, who offered first a personal reflection and then questions for thought on the impact of Pope Francis on our life, our work, and the world.  These were the thoughts I shared:

Though there have been five popes in my lifetime, I can remember three. During John Paul II’s time, I wasn’t really interested in popes. During Pope Benedict’s papacy, I would often cringe as I asked myself, “What is he going to do or say next?” And then came Pope Francis and I find myself smiling and asking, “What is he going to do or say next?”
Between renouncing the extravagant accessories that come with being pope, to washing the feet of prisoners, including Muslims and women, to telling the Vatican Almoner (the person in charge of giving out alms) to sell his desk because the work of the almoner would entail being out in the streets all the time (and also rumors of Francis accompanying the almoner to make late night visits), to just yesterday when the pope lined up in the Vatican canteen to eat with the rest of the Vatican staff, there is much to love about this pope. I don’t claim that he is perfect, but I do believe with all my heart that he is doing everything he can to walk the walk, to respond to Jesus’ call to follow… There is no question in my mind about Francis’ fidelity to Christ’s teaching. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” I think he’d like Pope Francis.
I am a program writer at JustFaith Ministries. We offer programs to churches that explore the intersection of faith and justice. Our goal is that people who go through our programs will use what they have learned about love, justice, and themselves to reach beyond boundaries, to be in relationship with people on the margins of society, to use their unique gifts to serve others, and ultimately to change the world by doing so.
Early on in his papacy, we in the office realized that Francis was in word and deed, bringing to light the same Catholic social teachings, particularly teachings about love, mercy, solidarity, and being in relationship with the poor, that are central to our programs. This is not to say that other popes had not said similar words, but Francis backs his words with concrete actions. People used to say that Catholic social teaching was “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church.” Thanks to Francis, a lot more people know about the Church’s social teaching.
My own role at JustFaith has been to revise one of our programs, GoodNewsPeople, which focuses on the call to discipleship and the New Evangelization. With great delight, I have been infusing the program with the beautiful words of Francis; I have collected many more quotes from him than I’ll ever be able to use in the program!
When I first read the quote I’m about to read, I knew immediately that I needed to find a place for it because it perfectly captures what we try to promote. Here it is:
In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly, and the outcast… “Come and see” Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.”
These are compelling and incredibly challenging words. Francis has invited us over and over to get up from the pews, so that our parishes become “environments of living communion and participation” so that they become “completely mission-oriented.” Francis wants us walk out of our church buildings, or maybe even run, and DO SOMETHING.  When he was in Brazil, he told young people on World Youth Day, “I want things messy and stirred up in congregations. I want you to take to the streets. I want the Church to take to the streets.”
He has said over and over again that we must to move beyond our comfort zones and reach out to others, which is exactly what our JustFaith staff hopes our program graduates will do. Graduates and other people who support our work have told us that they, too, are thrilled that the message of our programs and that of Pope Francis overlap so beautifully.
I myself am a graduate of the JustFaith program and the path I’ve walked since graduating eight years ago has recently led me to work part-time with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestine. My commitment is to work nonviolently as an accompanier and human rights observer, supporting the nonviolent work being carried out by Palestinian and Israelis. Part of my work is also to share my own observations, struggles, and learning through my blog and by giving talks when I am home. I came to work with the organization because of my strong belief in the Church’s teaching of the “preferential option for the poor”- that it is our role be in relationship with the most vulnerable, to amplify the voices of the voiceless, and to work for a world that upholds the dignity of all people.
I have been heartened both by Francis’ words about peace and by his actions when he visited the Holy Land.  In The Joy of the Gospel, he opened the section on peace by saying this:
Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle, while others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority.
The thought ends with this: “The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges.”
Francis is critical of unjust political, economic, and social structures, but he also seems to be ever-aware that those structures are made up of people. As he writes about achieving peace, Francis says that one of the principles for doing so is “unity over conflict” and when he explains it, he says that building communion amid disagreement “can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity.” Another principle he cites is that “the whole is greater than the part” and even the sum of its parts. In that section he reminds us that “Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked.” How easily we may discount someone because of the wrongs they’ve done, yet our Christian message tells us and Pope Francis reminds us that they, like us (for who of us hasn’t made errors), have gifts to share. Months before, Pope Francis had offered these simple and ever-so-challenging words, “Who am I to judge?” From what I understand, the pope treats everyone he meets with dignity and respect.  He honors them as children of God. This is what I strive to do in Israel/Palestine, whether I am in a Palestinian or Israeli home, interacting with soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint, or on the streets documenting clashes. It is not always easy and I constantly fail (which is true even in less volatile climates), but it is a beautiful ideal to strive for. I am so grateful that our pope offers so many reminders and examples of how to be in relationship with other people.
When Francis visited the Holy Land a few months ago, he visited both the Palestinian Territories and Israel, and he met with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It was no surprise that Francis visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and a very important place to visit, but for me, one of the most moving gestures he made was his impromptu visit to the 25-foot concrete wall that Israel built around Bethlehem (and throughout the West Bank) to separate Israel from Palestine. That Francis made this unscheduled stop points to the fact that he is ever responding to the movement of the Spirit, even if it means a change in plans ( after all, when doesn’t responding to the Spirit involve a change in plans?).
Seeing him pray at that wall that I myself have visited and prayed at touched me deeply. His gesture not long after that in which he invited the Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres to the Vatican for a prayer service for peace in the Holy Land also gave me hope. As evidenced by what is happening in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, along our borders, on our cities streets, and most probably in the hearts of all of us in this room, our world has a long way to go before we achieve peace. Francis cites another principle for peace, that “time is greater than space” and that “this principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give priority to time.”
He goes on, “What we need then is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear conviction and tenacity.”
Francis invites us to work for the common good, to expand our circle of relationships and to practice patience, forgiveness, and mercy, all built on the foundation of love.

What is he going to do or say next?