Put Out into the Deep

The Pope’s Challenging Words

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The Lord often provides us with unexpected opportunities for reflection and prayer. My opportunity came this past week when I was hospitalized for a severe throat and upper respiratory infection.

So, in this week when we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I had Pope Francis on my mind. It is certainly hard to keep up with all he is saying. After all, when the Pope identifies the two-fold crisis of the loneliness of the elderly and the unemployment of the young as the most pressing problems facing the world and Church, we have to take notice.

As we know, we deal with serious issues in our world today – war, poverty, abortion, migration and threats to the family. Yet, our Holy Father specifically references the loneliness of the elderly and youth unemployment. Perhaps these issues are proxies for Pope Francis, when he really is addressing hopelessness, the cancer of despair that is eating away at the world today.

The Pope’s treatment of these conditions seems to be proximity – that we must touch the wounds, or in his reference to the Sacred Scriptures, we must have “the smell of the sheep.” He is challenging us all. However, I think he is especially speaking to us, who are priests, to shed some of those comforts that accrue in our life and be closer and more available to the people of God. In doing so, we might better identify with their worry and suffering.

It is interesting to note how freely the Pope is giving interviews, which, unfortunately, do not have the precision of studied statements. It is always good to spontaneously hear what someone has to say, especially the Holy Father. On the other hand, we see recently how some misunderstandings have happened in these interviews. In the one interview in America magazine, I made sure that I read the Italian original from Le Civiltà Cattolica and did find a small error in the translation into English that would make a big difference in understanding what the Holy Father said. So, it is difficult to judge what the Pope means, especially from these unscripted statements. Clearly, he is pushing the boundaries, asking us to go forth to the peripheries and try to understand better what the Christian message means in the New Evangelization.

In the very beginning of his Papacy, Francis told us that he wanted a poor Church to serve the poor. That is a sweeping statement that has much for us to consider. The issue of poverty must be understood, perhaps in not just the spiritual way, but rather in a very personal way. The best definition of poverty that I have ever heard is, “poverty is that the poor do not have what they need, while the rich have more than what they need.” With this definition, a lot more of us perhaps are rich, and perhaps some of the poor are not as poor as others might make them out to be. Truly, solidarity is part of the Christian message, and how we share what we have with others to meet their basic needs is truly a call to Christian witness in today’s world.

In the weeks before choosing the new Pope, it was widely reported that the Sacred College of Cardinals was looking to elect someone who would reform the Roman Curia and make it more responsive to the needs of local Churches. My sense is that Pope Francis has set out to reform the entire Church. The reformation he is calling us to may come through poverty as a primary avenue toward holiness of life. By choosing poverty of spirit, as the Beatitudes suggest, we are enabled to recognize our dependence and at the same time forge a greater sense of solidarity with those for whom it is not a choice but a condition of life.

This past week, I was invited to share a bit in the poverty of the Lord. It is easy to take your health and independence for granted and suddenly recognize the fragility of life. However, please know that I was comforted by the many cards, letters and posted prayers on Facebook I received from so many of you. In the poverty of my health, it was clear I was not alone.

Our Holy Father has said so much these past six months, I really need to pray and reflect on his words. Perhaps the single greatest gift that Pope Francis has given us is that he is a question mark – not easily categorized or explained. I could hardly do him justice in this column of approximately 700 words. The challenge for me and for all of us is to see how we might put these principles into effect in our own lives.

As we put out into the deep with the Holy Father, I ask you to join me in considering how what Pope Francis is saying to us that might be implemented – not simply in our own lives but in the life of our parishes and Diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens.

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