What does the momentous visit of Pope Francis to the United States mean for the Church going forward? How can parishes leverage this powerful pastoral visit into a furtherance of our common missional agenda to evangelize? Having followed his words and actions carefully, and also listening closely to some of the cultural reaction (religious and secular), I’d like to offer the following insights. (I imagine these applying primarily in the parish setting, though they could be just as apt in diocesan systems.)
1. Every parish in the nation should engage immediately in two actions: #1. Proactively consider how to incarnate the model and exhortations of Pope Francis into action; and #2. Consider how the parish will intentionally ready itself when, not if, the “Francis effect” comes to its door, in whatever form. I suggest that parish leadership gather as soon as possible to begin to discuss these two pastoral considerations with an eye on the remarkable evangelizing opportunity the Pope has handed us.
2. Every parish that wishes to participate in the vision of Pope Francis should take time to reflect upon the ways it currently communicates dissonance to his call for openness and bridge-building, care for the marginal (of all kinds), and joy. (Input should come from sources both near and far to the parish epicenter.) And in parishes where leadership is resistant to his invitation to evangelize through humility, poverty and solidarity, there is a unique opportunity at this moment to charitably name and conscientiously challenge such resistance.
3. Pope Francis in this visit again demonstrated masterfully (and continually) the power of gesture. He modeled continually how little things mean a great deal. In truth, there is no such thing as a small thing. Every little thing is bound up in the great economy of salvation history, while impacting the person(s) across from us. The implication of this simple insight is radical for the person, potentially transformative of any parish and explosive for a Church open to a New Pentecost. In the tradition of Mary, St. Therese, and St. Mother Teresa, Pope Francis is inviting us to join him in living the small things (personally and pastorally) with contemplative intentionality. This is where New Evangelization first lives.
4. Pope Francis’ evangelizing and catechizing methodology is clear: Go to the people, listen to the people, be with the people, and bring the love of Jesus to them in your person. Each of us should allow this simple method to inform and challenge our current mindset for evangelization and catechesis, and no doubt enrich our praxis.
The impact of this papal visit can only be speculated at present. We can eagerly await what effect it will have on the Church in the US and beyond. However, this is a pope who values action more than rhetoric, who personalizes rather than theorizes. He is calling us to collectively take up the road of discipleship to incarnate the Gospel globally, but first, to encounter Jesus, personally.
And so, Pope Francis was speaking to me this past week as he travelled in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. He was inviting me to walk with him and the Church toward a horizon of hope…not just for the Church but the entire world. I feel challenged. I feel hopeful. I feel indicted, for both sins of commission and omission. The truth is it feels like I will be digesting and processing the images and themes of this visit of the Holy Father for a long time. I hope so. What about for you?