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  • Fr. Satish Joseph

The Face of Jesus: A Reflection on Pope Francis' visit to the US

I am sure most of you have been following Pope Francis’ visit to the United Sates rather closely. I have not watched this much TV in all my life. I tweeted my response to his visit in these words: “I have never been more proud of being a Catholic priest as I am today. I am thrilled to be a priest in the Pope Francis era.” There is no doubt that as concludes his visit today, he is creating history. Last week I prepared a homily in preparation for his visit. This week, based on today’s scriptures, I would like to read between the lines of the Pope’s speeches, visits and words to give some pointers for our own discipleship. Let me do so in five points.

1) The Pope who Breaks Down Walls. On the penultimate day of his visit, Pope Francis spoke to Bishops, priests and the religious at a mass at the Basilica in Philadelphia. He began his address with these words, “This morning I learned something about the history of this beautiful Cathedral: the story behind its high walls and windows. I would like to think, though, that the history of the Church in this city and state is really a story not about building walls, but about breaking them down.” His entire visit to the US can be described as a mission to break down walls.

In today’s first reading, Joshua wanted Moses to stop Eldidad and Midad from prophesying. The disciples wanted Jesus to stop outsiders from preaching in his name. Both Moses and Jesus refused to support an “us and them” ideology. “Us and them” – does that not define politics in our nation? In his address to the joint meeting of the Congress, Pope made an impassioned plea for unity. He asked the political leaders to abandon the politics that does not serve the common good – the “us and them” kind of politics. Rather, Pope Francis wanted the leaders to identify themselves with the poor and the helpless just as he had done. He proposed the Golden Rule as a yardstick to determine our actions. This yardstick, he said, “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development.” In this one statement he was breaking down the walls of separation between the Conservatives and liberals. When the Pope uttered these words, the Conservatives in the Congress cheered loud in support of this statement thinking that he was talking to the pro-choice liberals. In the very next sentence the Pope made an impassioned plea for abolishing the death penalty. Now the liberals cheered the Pope thinking that he was addressing those pro-lifers who are anti-abortion yet support the death penalty. While each side thought that he was talking to the other, Pope Francis was talking to them all. In this way he tried to break their barrier between them and suggest that we all need to change. This is the pope who breaks walls.

There was yet another great example. Pope Francis’ first public words in the US after meeting President Obama were: “I am the son of immigrants.” In this way he identified himself as poor and defenseless. He was expressing solidarity with the most helpless of today’s humanity – the refugees and immigrants. During the entire trip to the US, there was only one person who broke the barricades – five year old Sofia Cruz. Sofia crossed the barricades illegally like many immigrants and refugees do at the borders of nations. But the Pope said to the security – “Let her come.” This approach is typical of Pope Francis. In his mind, if we can focus on global issues not as political issues, but rather, as stories of real people, then it is possible for us to forget our differences and work for the common good. Pope Francis is a pope who breaks down walls.

2) The Pope of the Peripheries. The second symbolic action of the Pope was the four people he chose to guide his address – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. By doing so, Pope Francis was trying to make a point that he only otherwise mentioned briefly – liberty in plurality and non-exclusion. Exclusion of all kinds – economic, social, cultural, political and religious – is harmful to the church and society. The Pope Francis is an inclusive Pope. Nothing says this more than the inclusion of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as people who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirt of American people.” Dorothy Day, after many years, is recognized as a “servant of God.” But her story is not all clean. She had an abortion in her younger days, a failed marriage and a child out of wedlock, was passionately anti-war, and was a convert to Catholicism. Thomas Merton, who in his younger days in Cambridge lead a wild life, fathered and illegitimate child. He later became a Trappist monk. Thomas Merton was a champion of inter-religious dialogue and pacifism. When the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults was being composed there was a debate about whether his name should be included as one of the contributors to the Catholic heritage in America. He was deemed as “not important”, and his name does not find mention. Yet Pope Francis used him and Dorothy Day, two not very likely people, to reflect on the American ethos. He included people who otherwise could have been excluded. This is the Pope of inclusion. Perhaps, this explains why after his talk with the senators he skipped lunch with them and had lunch with the homeless people at Catholic Charities. Perhaps this explains him reaching out the NYPD police officer on wheelchairs in New York. Perhaps this explains why he visited a school in Harlem which caters to immigrant and refugee children. Perhaps this explains why an openly gay man Mo Rocca read the first reading at the papal mass at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps this explains why he made an impassioned plea for the abolition of the death penalty. Perhaps this explains his speech to the UN General Assembly where he makes a clamoring call to equality and justice by caring for the environment and eschewing an exclusive economic system. Perhaps this explains why he specially mentions very especially and dearly the women religious of the country, who until he became Pope were under and investigation. He is pope of the inclusion like Moses and like Jesus.

3) Pope Francis: The Face of Jesus Christ’s and His Humility. Pope Francis is a pope of great personal and institutional Humility. It was surprising to me that in his address to the USA Congress and to the UNGA, the Pope did not once mention Jesus Christ. Even the words church was mentioned only once in his address to the Congress and very rarely in speaking to the UNGA. Why? In my opinion here are some reasons. First, he was addressing the Congress as the head of Vatican State and not merely as a religious leader. But I also think, this was because of the Pope’s sensitivity to the ideal of religious freedom. The United States is a secular nation with a secular constitution. There were senators in the gathering who were not Christian. At least two of them were Muslims. This Pope is a Pope who wants to emphasize not our differences but our commonality. His approach is to identify the issues that confront us – global poverty, social and economic injustice, violence, war, immigration, environment, religious intolerance, the issues faced by the elderly, women and youth, respecting life in all stages of development – and then come together to resolve them. That is why he participated in an inter-religious prayer service in New York. He came not to highlight the difference between Christianity and other religions but rather he came to see how our commonality can help solve global and local issues that human beings face. This was the same approach he took at the UNGA speech. I call this institutional humility. The Pope’s personal humility precedes this institutional humility. He ends every public engagement with the words, “Remember to pray for me.” He says this with a smile. In other words, even though Pope Francis did not mention Jesus Christ in his addresses to the general audience, is there any ambiguity about his identity? The Pope does is revealing Jesus Christ in his actions. In his personal humility, in the institutional humility, in the people he identifies with, in his care for the poor, the defenseless, the sick, those in prison and the elderly and children, the Pope is truly the face of Jesus Christ.

4) The Pope of Changing Conversations. From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has been revolutionizing how we talk about issues. He is not changing doctrines, but he is changing how we talk about them. The greatest example was his “Who am I to judge?” comment when asked about gay and lesbian Catholics. He did not change doctrine but he changed how we talk about the issue. He has taken this approach one more time with regard to his favorite topic – caring for the environment. Pope Francis has changed the language from “caring for the environment” to “the right of the environment. He does this because according to him “human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect.” In this way, the Pope has given rights to not just to human beings, but to every living creature. Talk about expanding the “right to life” from life of a human person to the life of every living creature. Pope Francis is changing the conversation about the conversations.

5) The “Missionary Disciple” Pope. Let me conclude with Pope Francis’ homily at the Basilica in Philadelphia. He recounted the story of St. Katherine Drexel, who approached Pope Leo XIII about the needs of the Church. Leo XIII listened patiently to her and then asked her, “And what about you? What are you going to do?” Then Pope Francis repeated this same to the people numerous times: “What about you?” Suggesting an answer, he invited his audience to “missionary discipleship.” He said to them, “You have a personal responsibility for the church’s mission.” He asked them to go out the peripheries and be seen in service to the poor, the immigrants, the sick and those in prison. He had a similar message at the World Meeting on Families on Saturday night. He asked families to spread the joy of the gospel to the whole world. Love, beauty and truth – that is the mission of the families as they face real-life issues. He wants us all to be “missionary disciples.”

And so, I conclude my reflection with the very words of Pope Francis: “What about you? What are you going to do?”

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