We at the monastery have been watching Pope Francis during his visit to our country. We have gathered in our living room, or linked with a news feed on our computers to catch a glimpse of Francis or hear an address or homily. Like many of you, Pope Francis’ visit to the United States has captivated our attention.
No doubt you’ve noticed the Pope’s incredible popularity among a variety of people. What makes Francis so respected, so beloved?
Diplomatic and polite, Pope Francis is not shy about touching the tough issues. He challenged the United States Congress to welcome immigrant peoples and refugees, challenged the General Assembly of the United Nations to live up to its Charter, acknowledged sexual abuse of children by clergy and finally, speaking not from a prepared speech but from his heart about the difficulties facing families at the World Meeting on the Family. Much of what Francis said touches me however, one basic idea will live with me forever. I am not drawing from a single quote but what I have heard as a basic theme running through the Pope’s messages to powerful leadership bodies in our country, world and Church. The theme is this, the common good of all creation is served when we recognize that we do not lead nameless, faceless groups but individual persons who are affected and effected by what we, as individuals and as leading bodies do or don’t do.
As I sit with my sisters, oblates and guests watching the coverage of Pope Francis’ visit, we are really struck by something else. Although we all are listening attentively to the Pope as he speaks, there are far fewer comments on what he says than on what he is doing.
Now, I don’t know if you know this but, I was a Religion major. So, I am prone to employ some of those “methods of study” while I am observing something as powerful as watching Pope Francis make history in our country. Just for a minute, I am going put my education to use and intellectualize what I have observed. Bear with me though. There is a point.
Catholicism is an interesting mix of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice). In college, I spent a great deal of time dividing up religions into these categories. For Roman Catholics, orthopraxy falls into two fundamental subdivisions, ritual practice (attending Mass or ritual prayer like Liturgy of the Hours) and works (the performance of the corporal works of mercy i.e. feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked…). Pope Francis exhibits all of these. As I have watched, I have noticed Francis has another very fundamental orthopraxy.
While he was walking up to the podium to make his historic address to the joint session of the US Congress, Pope Francis actually stopped to greet Secretary of State John Kerry, he addressed the workers at the United Nation before addressing the ambassadors and observers of the General Assembly, he spent time with clerical abuse victims, met with Rabbi Skorka, spent time with the United States Bishops, began his homily in Philadelphia’s St. Peter and Paul Church by offering his heart felt sorrow to Muslims as they mourn over 700 pilgrims who died on the Hajj and he endlessly stopped to greet, bless and hug random people as he journeyed from one place to another. Pope Francis is a man of powerful words yet, while exhorting the US Congress to follow the golden rule, the UN General Assembly to orient itself to the purpose of its founding, the common good of all the earth and, the faithful to live the Gospels, he exemplifies the practice of authentic encounter. We watched as he moved through the enormous crowds touching persons, smiling at her/him, shaking hands, and giving a blessing. Pope Francis doesn’t see the poor; he sees individuals who live in poverty. He doesn’t see the handicapped; he sees a person who is blind or a person with cognitive difficulties. He recognizes a person of faith, not a religion… Francis even tells us our common origin (God our creator) compels him to encounter with his whole attention on the person before him. You can’t help feeling the connection when Francis stops and engages someone.
Can you imagine Jesus doing this very same thing when he encountered the woman at the well, the person who returned to say thank you for healing him of leprosy, the blind man who kept calling out for help and the woman who touched the hem of his clothes knowing her suffering would come to an end by doing so? I can and I can also understand why Pope Francis is asking the Church to focus on God’s mercy.
In numerous addresses and homilies, Pope Francis has told listeners it is by showing compassion, respect and mercy that we receive compassion, respect and mercy. Then, he demonstrates this for us. Under the watchful lens of multiple cameras, Francis walked among the people of the United States and authentically encountered individual persons created in the image and likeness of God.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that he thought Christianity was a good idea but he didn’t know anyone who practiced it. I wonder if he would have changed his mind had he lived to meet our Pope Francis.
Ana Cloughly, OSB