Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"Walking with Pope Francis: the pope who is ‘close to people’ sets an example for clergy and laity alike of the New Evangelization"
by Bishop Blase J. Cupich
(From the June 20, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)
(Editor’s note: Bishop Cupich was so impressed by this article by a reporter in Rome, he asked that it serve as his article this month as a way of helping parishioners get a feel for the new style of the Holy Father and how he is being received.)
by Gerald O’Connor
When one watches Pope Francis moving among the mentally and physically disabled people it is like watching a page of the Gospels come to life. In the Gospels we read how people brought the sick and disabled to Jesus for him to lay his hands on them. The same is now happening with Pope Francis at every public audience in St. Peter’s Square, or wherever he moves in Rome.
It is something deeply touching to watch. He goes among them smiling, caressing each one, kissing many of them, and taking in his arms the most desperate cases. He whispers words of love and encouragement, and makes the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
For these people, who to all intents and purposes are on the margins of life, seemingly no longer players in the field of life, his presence among them is a truly consoling, encouraging, uplifting moment; a moment of grace. They kiss him, hold his hand, smile, cry, shout and tell him their woes and their joys.
After celebrating Mass and canonizing 802 saints on Sunday, May 12, the Argentinian pope spent almost 30 minutes driving among the vast crowd of more than 100,000 people from many countries gathered in St Peter’s Square. En route, he kissed many babies and young children in the process. At one point he spotted a Down’s syndrome girl in her early teens in the crowd. He stopped the jeep, got out and hugged and blessed that girl. The look of sheer delight on her face said everything.
As he came near the end of his journey across the square, the head of Vatican security, Domenico Gianni, told him: “Look, there’s a very large crowd of people in wheel chairs over there, maybe too many.” Pope Francis looked and, without more ado, he stepped out of the jeep and went to greet each one of them. It took him half an hour in all.
From the jeep he had spotted a 5-year-old boy with immense problems; the boy was in such bad shape that a nurse had to hold him in his arms. Pope Francis went directly to the child and, putting his arms around him, kissed him gently, whispered some words of encouragement, and blessed him. Then he blessed those who were caring for the child, before moving on to the next person in need.
“Francis, you understand us!” an elderly woman confined to a wheel chair shouted out when she saw him going towards her. She patted him on the back, and kissed his hand. And her husband, who was caring for her, grasped the pope’s hand too with a look of immense gratitude, and then broke into tears.
The first Latin American pope in the history of the Church went on like this for half an hour. As he neared the end, another woman in a wheelchair told him, “You must be tired by now.” He looked at her with a smile and quipped, ‘Not so tired, but I see you are a seer!”
For Pope Francis, this is what it means to be a priest, to be close to people, and first and foremost those in the greatest difficulty and need. He sees this as the mission of a priest, of a bishop, and indeed of all true followers of Christ. He sees it as his first priority of Pope. He has a word in Spanish for it: cercania – “being close,” “closeness.”
This pope “from the end of the world” is setting an example for Christians worldwide, for members of the clergy, high or low; for members of the Religious orders; and for the ordinary lay faithful.
Over recent years, much has been written and said about the new evangelization and what it means and what in involves. A new office has been set up in the Vatican for this, under Pope Benedict, and similar structures have been set up in many countries. But one Vatican observer was heard to remark in Rome last week, “Pope Francis understands what the new evangelization is more than all the structures we have set up.”
Indeed, this pope from Argentina is engaging in the new evangelization in a way that is reaching hearts across the globe, from the Iceland to Tierra del Fuego in his native Argentina – a country eight times the size of France. And he is reaching people of all faiths and none, not just Catholics.
There is growing evidence from many countries that Catholics are returning to Church and going again to confession in a way that has not happened for decades, because of what they see Pope Francis doing and what they have heard him say about God being a God of mercy and love who is waiting for us. He is somehow connecting with people, with hearts across the globe.
This first-ever Jesuit Pope is gifted with words, but he chooses to be economical in their use. Like St. Francis of Assisi before him, he prefers to communicate the Gospel message of love, wherever possible, by deeds rather than by words.
As he said at Mass on Saturday morning, May 11, we touch “the wounds of Jesus, the flesh of Jesus” when we come close to and assist the poor, the illiterate, those in the greatest need. Prayer to God, being a follower of Christ, he said, involves touching the wounds of these people who are on the extremities of life.
One can only wonder what would happen in the world if all Catholic bishops, priests, men and women Religious and lay people were to follow the example of Pope Francis.
(This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 edition of The Universe, and is reprinted by permission.)
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