Mission to America

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Reflection on Pope Francis’ whirlwind visit to three U.S. cities

As any of the millions of people who turned out to encounter Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States can attest, it is no task for the faint of heart. Miles-long security checkpoints, hour upon hour of waiting, frustrating bureaucracy to navigate, restless crowds pressing upon you, the sheer emotional fatigue. One can only imagine how much worse it is when you’re actually the pope.

Pope Francis’ itinerary included 25 events over six days, a grueling schedule by any measure but particularly so since he is 78 years old and his visit came on the heels of an equally busy trip to Cuba. Nevertheless, he seemed to gain energy from the crowds rather than be drained by them. To say the crowds had the same reaction would be an understatement. Everywhere Francis went, from the White House to Central Park to Madison Square Garden to Independence Hall, the excitement reached a fever pitch. It wasn’t just among the Catholics, but among the many pilgrims of different faiths or little faith whose enthusiasm for Francis almost matched that of his Catholic flock.

Reporting or providing radio commentary for various events in all three cities, I had the privilege of watching Pope Francis for the whole week. My takeaways from that experience are many, but overwhelmingly what Pope Francis taught us during this visit were valuable lessons about one of his favorite topics: Mission.

Perhaps no moment was more poignant than Francis’ prayer service at Ground Zero in Manhattan, site of the attack on the Twin Towers. In the 14 years since that awful day there have been times when many of us have used Ground Zero as a symbol of an imagined global struggle against Muslim enemies—and sometimes Christian symbolism has worked its way into that imagination. But Francis’ words there did not speak of crusades or external threats to Christian civilization; instead, he spoke of the universal need to respect differences and work for a peace that grows out of justice.

A student shows Pope Francis a lesson on environment during his visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York (CNS photo)

“For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace,” Francis said. “In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say ‘no’ to every attempt to impose uniformity and ‘yes’ to a diversity accepted and reconciled.”

It is a challenging lesson, and even an upsetting one, because it asks us to acknowledge that unity is not the same as uniformity, and perhaps is antithetical to it. And that maybe God’s plan always intended humanity to have unique ways of living, diverse ways of talking, and, yes, even different ways of believing.

Our temptation as North Americans is often to see mission as an overseas challenge. One “goes on mission,” to use the traditional parlance. Not so, according to Francis: Mission can be a matter of simply looking to one’s right or left on the city sidewalks.

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath ‘the rapid pace of change,’ so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city,” Francis said in his homily at Madison Square Garden. “They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.” They, too, are deserving of the message of the Gospel and of the care of the Christian community. We need not look just to traditional mission work to find opportunities to live out the Gospel call. They can be found if we only have eyes to see.

Just a few days earlier, Pope Francis puts his words into action by choosing to dine at a Washington, D.C., soup kitchen for the homeless, instead of with government leaders after his speech to both houses of Congress.

We perhaps think of Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, when we hear the phrase “the joy of the Gospel.” But for everyone who encountered Francis anywhere during his weeklong visit (even if just on television), one thing was clear: he isn’t faking it. Pope Francis looks bored sometimes, looks annoyed sometimes, and looks tired often enough. But when he is happy, no one can miss it: he radiates joy. So it was a real teaching moment for me to see when he is most joyful. His face lit up when he encountered a stranger, when he embraced and kissed a disabled person, when children escorted him around a classroom.

Where do we find those opportunities for holiness? Welcoming the stranger, comforting the afflicted, and caring for the most vulnerable? They are constant biblical themes, up to and through the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, and they remain with us today as characteristics of Christian life. What the face of Pope Francis might hint at, however, is that these should not be seen just as the duties of a person following the call to Christian mission; they are the keys to joy for everyone.

Featured Image: Pope Francis addresses the Festival of Families during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. (CNS/P. Haring)


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About the author

James T. Keane

James Keane is acquisitions editor at Maryknoll’s Orbis Books.