Pope Francis at Philly Cathedral: Break Down These Walls!

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and uttered the most memorable line of his entire presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This morning, at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Pope Francis began his homily with a similar sentiment. He said:

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.  It is a story about generation after generation of committed Catholics going out to the peripheries, and building communities of worship, education, charity and service to the larger society.

The Holy Father has shown yet again that he is intimately familiar with the dynamics of the Church in the U.S. No prelate has been more identified with, nor a more energetic fighter in, the culture wars than Archbishop Charles Chaput. He and those who think like him have repeatedly invoked images of doom, warned ominously about the forces of secularization, called for the Church to draw clear distinctions between itself and the ambient culture, and all too frequently, hurled epithets at those with whom they disagree.

Today, the Holy Father invited the culture warriors to a different approach. And, canny Jesuit that he is, he began his invitation to a different approach by invoking one of Philadelphia’s own, St. Katherine Drexel. He noted how she responded to the needs of her day and then pointed the Church of Philadelphia and the entire U.S. in a clear direction:

One of the great challenges facing the Church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the Church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world.  This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations, carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the Spirit opens up to us and communicating the joy of the Gospel, daily and in every season of our life.

In Philadelphia, where the clerical culture was on full display, with all the front pews occupied by men in robes, this message is revolutionary. If that was not clear from his more general remarks, these words made it absolutely crystal clear:

Our challenge today is to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions.  This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted; rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the Church.  In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.    

Women! Imagine that!

I have been told that the priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh say a prayer every night, thanking God for the Allegheny mountains, which keeps the clericalism of Philadelphia from reaching the western regions of the state. Today, the winds blew in the other direction. Pope Francis brought his message of encounter, dialogue and inclusion to the belly of the clerical beast today. Though the Allegheny mountains fall, the Word of God has been preached, and an ecclesial approach set forth, all in the clearest of terms, without rancor, without chastising anyone, without drawing clear distinctions between the elect and the unwashed, between the Church and the world the Church is called to serve. “Archbishop Chaput, break down these walls!” the Holy Father said in as many words. He might have added, “And cancel your subscription to First Things!”  



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