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An Open Letter To Pope Francis

by Father James H. Sweeney

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 1. The sign in the crowd in Italian says “Francesco, go rebuild my house,” a reference to Jesus’ words to St. Francis in an apparition.
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 1. The sign in the crowd in Italian says “Francesco, go rebuild my house,” a reference to Jesus’ words to St. Francis in an apparition.

This April, I celebrated my 32nd year as a priest. I’ve spent the vast majority of that time in inner-city or poor neighborhoods – South Brooklyn, pre-hipster Williamsburg and Brownsville-East New York. The description “poor” has to do with the economic reality of those neighborhoods. It is not a reflection on the richness of culture, dedication, love and community present in those places. I have encountered in the poorest communities the most Christ-like people.

My health and physical limitations of recent years have hindered me from working in poor areas because it is not the most popular of ministries and often you’re working by yourself. At this point, it is much harder for me to do that.

So for now, I’m helping out in other neighborhoods. When you get away from poor neighborhoods, sometimes you can forget the privilege it is to be in them. Where I am now is a great parish, filled with wonderful people. However, it is not a poor, economically disadvantaged neighborhood.

There is a mystery in working in the poorer places because to have a real personal relationship with people who live in poverty has a concrete personal impact on your life. It seems that to be connected with those that are sometimes most broken is to see plainly the face of God in its most basic form, i.e., Matthew 25 – when I was hungry, thirsty, sick, etc.

Our new Holy Father has reminded me of this incredible mystery by his simplicity, humility and common touch. He’s echoing the little friar of Assisi who helped the institution long ago remember that it is in serving the poorest among us that we live the fullest expression of the life of the Lord Jesus, who washed his disciples’ feet and asked them to simply go and do the same for each other. So, thank you Holy Father…

Thank you for reminding me that it is in the slums of Buenos Aires and East New York that one sees the face of Christ more clearly, a lot more so than in other places, especially ones of power and wealth.

Thank you for reminding me that it is not the color of the pope’s shoes that makes him the Vicar of Christ, but that like the Good Shepherd, he is ready to lay down his life for his sheep.

Thank you for washing the feet of ordinary people, most especially young people (boys and girls) in a detention center, in an attempt to give some hope to those who have felt the pain of hopelessness

Thank you for reminding me that charity is not simply writing a check, as good as that sometimes may be. But that true charity, i.e. caritas, is a personal altruistic commitment to real living people. It is from one person to another. It is to look into the eyes of another with love and the desire to serve.

Thank you for reminding me that the vocation of sacred orders is not an honor or privilege given to a select few but a call to be of humble service to others, striving always to witness to a life in complete opposition to the notion of superiority.

Thank you for reminding me that it is good for clerics to pay their own way, i.e., their meals, their bills, resisting the temptation to let others always pick up the tab.

Thank you for not living alone but choosing to live in community. For it is in community that we become aware of the needs and sufferings of those around us.

Thank you for your universal pastoral outlook, looking outside the box, beyond the Vatican walls, reminding me that the institution of the Church, although always bureaucratic, must never be reduced simply to a business or corporation. It must always reflect the compassion and humanity of Christ Jesus.

Thank you for reminding me that in this modern era, the institution of the Church must possess websites and blogs and e-mails. However, in its most important and basic form, preaching the gospel (the Good News) is not something electronic but very personal – cor ad cor loquitor, one heart speaking to another.

Thank you for reminding me that elaborate vestments, expensive incense, lace and ecclesial finery are just externals and that the internal treasurer of the gospel will always be understanding, compassion and humble service to our brothers and sisters.

Thank you for reminding me of the blessings I’ve had in my life to know people like yourself who have inspired me personally in my priesthood to serve the least among us. They were local men and women who embraced lives of service and self-sacrifice, touching the hearts of countless others. Such people as Msgr. Bryan Karvelis, Dorothy Day, Peter Kelly, C.F.X., Msgr. Jack Peyton, Msgr. Jim Cooney, Padre Jose Raposo, S.J., and Sister Marcellus Ricioppo, C.S.J.

Holy Father, I pray that these reminders might shake me of my complacency and reawaken and recommit me to a priesthood in love, humble service, simplicity of life and a commitment in charity to others, especially the most abandoned.

Perhaps the image of you that will best serve to remind me of who you are and what you strive to be in Christ is the image of you recently in St. Peter’s Square as you passed a group of enthusiastic pilgrims who were shouting your name with reverence, “Francesco, Francesco.” You simply looked at them with affection, smiled and said, “No, no Francesco, no. Gesu si” (“No, Francis no, Gesu, yes”) and then you lead them in the chant, “Gesu, Gesu, Gesu.”

Thank you, dear Holy Father, Francis.[hr] Father Sweeney currently resides at Holy Name rectory, Windsor Terrace.

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0 thoughts on “An Open Letter To Pope Francis

  1. Father Sweeney, your letter touched me, but it also reminds me of the many times shared with you and my sweet Saint Barbara’s Youth Group. You gave us guidance, you made us laugh, and most of all you gave us friendship. I don’t know if I ever said thank you, but thank you so much for being a part of my life and many other youth of the bushwick area. May God Bless and give you the health to continue in your ministy.