Pope Francis has a gift of speaking directly to the heart. Lately most days I find myself online seeking out his homilies and speeches because his words comfort me and move me and challenge me. With his humble manner, joyful smile and the warmth with which he reaches out to people in the streets, I am reminded of the Father in my favorite parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Have you ever been lost for a long time and then been found? Turned away from God and been forgiven by a God that ran to you with open arms? I experienced this grace and it changed me forever.
Pope Francis began a recent speech with these words:
“And this is our life, walking under grace, because the Lord has loved us, has saved us, has forgiven us.”
God’s grace is beautiful, with the power to bring us to our knees, our hands together in profound gratitude. It brought me to daily liturgy, daily reading of Scripture and Catholic spiritual writers, regular prayer, co-leadership of a small Bible study group and RCIA at my former parish, and eventually to an administrative position in the Justice & Peace Office here at St. Francis. I was a lost sheep who God sought out and brought back to the fold.
But lately, Pope Francis has been challenging me. I keep returning to read the unscripted speech he gave on June 17, which begins with a beautiful reflection on grace and ends with an exhortation to proclaim the Gospel to the poor through our compassion.
Pope Francis is very clear – we who have hope because we know God’s grace must share that hope with our words and with our witness. And this is where he challenges me the most: We must share our hope first with the poor.
The proclamation of the Gospel is destined for the poor first of all, for all those all who all too often lack what they need in to live a dignified life. To them first are proclaimed the glad tidings that God loves them with a preferential love and comes to visit them through the charitable works that disciples of Christ do in his name. Go to the poor first of all: this is the priority.
Pope Francis says we witness to God’s love for the poor not through proselytizing and not at a distance by donating money or setting up charitable foundations, but by meeting with people who are suffering and showing them Christ’s compassion.
I think Pope Francis’ favorite verb may be “go.” He says: “Go to the poor first of all.” “Go outside.” “Go to the outskirts.” “Go out of our communities.” “Go and show them our love.”
I could comfort myself with the knowledge that my job in the Justice & Peace Office is to help administer our parish ministries of service to the wider community. If I rarely directly encounter the poor and offer them comfort, I am indirectly helping some of our parishioners in their service to people in need. I also could comfort myself that I manage our donations drives that provide food and clothing and school supplies to the needy in our community.
But giving things to poor people we never meet does not seem to be what Pope Francis has in mind. In a July 3 homily on the Feast of St. Thomas, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of being willing to touch the wounds of Christ through compassion to people who are suffering.
“We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body … of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because he is humiliated, because he is enslaved, because he is incarcerated, because he is in hospital. These are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds.”
The Pope then anticipates the way we often respond to the needs of the poor:
‘Ah, good! Let’s set up a foundation to help these people, to do so many good things to help them’. That is important, but if we remain on this level, we will be merely philanthropists.”
He goes on to say that where we encounter Christ and what transforms us is by touching his wounds in people who are suffering.
Merely philanthropists. Is that what I have become?
An irony in my life is that before my re-conversion, my return to the Catholic faith of my childhood, I spent much more time in contact with people who are poor and suffering. I was a social worker in psychiatric and medical hospitals. But I lacked the joy of God at that time in my life, and without the grace of hope in God and trust in him to grow some of the seeds I planted amidst so much poverty and despair, I burned out.
Now that God by grace has given me new life, I am comfortably ensconced in a suburban life where I interact mainly with faithful Catholics. And although all of us carry some degree of burden and sadness and grief, I rarely encounter people who are suffering in any extraordinary way. I also will admit that after years of watching the endless parade of violence and greed portrayed in the media, I have been deliberately limiting my exposure to disturbing news.
So the Pope’s speech July 8 struck me to the core. Pope Francis said a Mass on the Italian island in memory of the many desperate migrants from North Africa who died in recent years in trying to reach Europe. He asked for forgiveness for those whose global decisions have led to situations where people are so desperate.
“Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!”, and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!
In a July 12 tweet, the pope asked, “Lord grant us the grace to weep over our indifference, over the cruelty that is in the world and in ourselves.”
I love being a Catholic. I love being part of the St. Francis community. I love reflection and learning about our faith, and praying privately and communally to our God. But the Pope has been reminding me that Christianity calls us to act like Christ. Being a Christian is not simply sharing an identity in a comfortable club and indulging in personal spiritual growth. I ask myself, ‘Am I doing enough to show compassion to the poor?’
And I pray for courage and re-read Pope Francis’ conclusion to his June 17 speech.
“Do not be afraid of grace, do not be afraid of going out of our Christian communities to seek and find the 99 who are not at home. And go and talk to them, and tell them what we think, go and show them our love, which is the love of God. Dear brothers and sisters: do not be afraid! Let us keep going, to tell our brothers and sisters that we are under grace, that Jesus gives us grace and that this costs nothing: only, accept it. Onwards!”