By Trevor Thompson
It’s been about six months since Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square in simple white vestments and asked for a blessing from the people before offering them a blessing of his own. Since then, with his words and actions, Pope Francis has captured the imagination of the Church (and the world at large).
In the Pope’s vision of church and ministry, the church is dynamic and welcoming, and the ministers are like merciful guides walking on a journey with every pilgrim person. In every address and interview Pope Francis gives, this vision is drawn out more clearly. The images he has used recently are very vivid: church as “field hospital” and church as “mother and shepherdess.”
As he poignantly said in his interview “A Big Heart Open to God,” published in America, “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity…. The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
I admit – I am deeply inspired by this simple, radiant, and compelling proclamation of the mercy and love of Jesus Christ! He makes me want to live a holier life and to share the “good news” with others, just like he’s doing!
And thus, since taking over the helm of Justice and Peace ministries at our parish (also six months ago), I have been asking myself how our ministries might align more and more with Pope Francis’s inspirational leadership and vision of the church. I am reminded that the parish mission statement says that our first and foremost task as a parish is “to proclaim the reign of God.” Whether it’s through ministries of outreach, advocacy, education, or liturgy, our duty is to proclaim Jesus Christ.
In a recent Justice and Peace Ministry Leader meeting in September we discussed this vision of church and ministry life and how Pope Francis’s example might continue to guide us. We talked about how much we desire our ministries to be places where the Holy Spirit is alive, that is, places where there is love, compassion, hospitality and invitation, hope, empathy, gratitude, transformation, and healing. Ultimately, we want our ministries to be places of evangelization, places where the divine power of the Gospel transforms everything it encounters.
We met in small groups in this September meeting, and we named specific signs of this fresh and alive and transforming Spirit. If we see these things happening in our ministries, we will know that evangelization is happening:
• People will begin to pray in voices of gratitude and hope;
• People will want to invite others to join them in ministry;
• There’s will be a shift in the way someone thinks and feels, so that compassion will be the new way of thinking and feeling;
• Violence will stop, wounds will begin to heal, and unjust structures will be confronted;
• People will become part of families, will stand up with dignity, and will feel more alive;
• Friendships will be made;
• Creativity will emerge in surprising ways; and
• People will feel like their gifts are being used for something bigger than them.
Wow! If these things are happening in our ministries of Justice and Peace, we should rejoice and give thanks to the Lord. But like I do, I also imagine you may ask yourself these hard questions: What are the ways we are falling short? How can our church and her ministries be more and more like this vision? What are the impediments keeping my church and ministry from being a place of mercy and hope and healing? How am I being asked to grow as a disciple and minister of the gospel to bring this vision to life?
Those are challenging questions, but they are precisely the questions that Pope Francis’s example is inspiring in everyone.
I want to emphasize that what I think makes the proclamation of Pope Francis so compelling is that, like St. Francis and Jesus himself before him, the emphasis is not on homiletics or theological treatises but on concrete actions, actions that are authentic, simple, attractive, relational, dialogical, patient, and inspiring. Remember that with Jesus, it was his washing the feet of his friends, his sharing a meal, and his walking down the road with the disciples whose hearts were burning within. With St. Francis, it was his care of lepers, his rebuilding of dilapidated churches, and his songs of joy in the marketplace. With Pope Francis, it’s his kissing of babies, his vulnerability in interviews, his choices for simplicity in his accommodations and travel, and, of course, that smile of his.
These simple, profound, and radiant actions have proven over and over again to transform hearts and lives of the people who experience them. As Pope Francis says, “The first reform must be the attitude,” yet as he continues to show in his actions, “Preach always and if necessary use words.”
Again, I am asking myself (and you) about the concrete actions that our church and ministries exude that is akin to the example of those mentioned above. We brainstormed some possibilities the other night at our meeting:
• Engage other parishioners in one-on-one conversation…over coffee, in the pew, at other meetings, in our neighborhoods, on the phone…whenever and wherever…;
• Meet people where they are, with their gifts and interests, and walk with them.
• Use food and fellowship to create a sense of hospitality and warmth;
• Pause for prayer and reflection and silence, even when it seems awkward;
• Gather volunteers together periodically to unpack when they have been doing/seeing/experiencing;
• Follow up with emails and phone calls with parishioners to invite, to explore something more deeply, and to offer thanks;
• Make connections for volunteers with the deeper socio-political issues at hand in our work, connecting the charity to justice, life to faith, Catholic social teaching with our ministries; and
• Offer opportunities for growth in faith and ministry leadership
Hopefully, as a ministry leader you already are doing some of the things above. We’d like to work with you to help bring more of these suggestions to life in our ministries. Pope Francis is asking us to believe that people will come knocking on our door when our ministries are places of this kind of evangelization.
Of course, some ministries call for this kind of approach more than others. Ministries in which we interact directly with people in need will want different approaches than ministries that focus on donation drives, for example. Yet, the call of evangelization is that the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel just pours out of our skin in all that we do, transforming our lives and the lives of those we live and work with and serve.