The Archdiocese of Washington launched a new campaign yesterday called “Walk with Francis.” Designed to coordinate with the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to the United States, Catholics and non-Catholics alike are invited to pledge themselves to “walk the walk” and not merely “talk the talk,” not only nodding in agreement with the pope but making sure we are ourselves engaged in following the Lord with joy in our hearts, and communicating that joy to others.
As the letter from Cardinal Donald Wuerl announcing the pledge states:
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention with his infectious joy. What is striking to me is that in his actions we see the source of his joy. He loves sharing God’s love with others. His words, his gestures, his preaching teach us how to imitate Christ who is the human manifestation of God, the Father.
What Pope Francis is also quick to say is that all of us are called to be joyful followers of Jesus. Our Holy Father asks us to ‘bear radiant witness to communion, service, ardent and generous faith, justice and love of the poor’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 288).”
It cannot be stated too often: The reason Pope Francis has captured the imagination of the world is not only because he is himself a great communicator of joy of the Gospel, although he is, but that he is so obviously walking in the path of Jesus Christ. As Blessed Pope Paul VI, who seems to be Pope Francis’ favorite predecessor, said in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” This is especially true among our young people who can sniff out a phony a mile away and who respond deeply when they encounter the genuine article.
William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote, “The mere aspirant after a type of character only shows his hopeless inferiority when the natural orator or fighter or lover comes along.” The natural orator about, fighter for, and lover of Jesus and His flock has “come along” in Pope Francis. And, what is more, Cardinal Wuerl is extending the invitation to all of us to do the same, to become naturals, not aspirants, in the pathways of the Lord.
When you go to the “Walk with Francis” website, there are three core invitations, to pray, to serve the poor, and to act for justice. Within each of these three groups, there are multiple suggestions about how one can walk the walk. For example, if you click on the pledge to serve, you will find information about volunteering at a local Catholic hospital or at your local parish or with a group dedicated to a specific need, such as L’Arche's work with the mentally challenged. Under the category of working for justice, you can find out about defending the unborn or defending the environment, both of which the pope has called us to defend.
The options were clearly designed with the idea that there is something for everyone here, that you could take the pledge to “Walk with Francis” into any office, even a law firm with both Democrats and Republicans among the partners, and get everyone to find something they would like to commit themselves to doing. But, let me ramp the challenge up a bit. Ask yourself why you would prefer to work to defend the unborn, rather than the environment, or vice-versa? As the Holy Father made clear in Laudato Si’ the two are linked. I have never understood how so many fellow Democrats could be so passionate about defending the human dignity of the undocumented and so indifferent to the human dignity of the unborn, nor how so many Republicans could evidence sincere concern for the unborn and so little compassion for the undocumented. Everyone whom are society excludes by designating them with an “un,” by what they are not, is someone after the pope’s heart. Before you sign up to take the Walk with Francis pledge, ask yourself why you only hear the call to do certain things, and not the whole package. Pray about that.
I say this because I fear that when the pope comes to the U.S., many people will only hear what they want to hear. Those on the right will be minimizing and trimming his message on the economy. Those on the left will be trying to amplify the parts that resonate with them and walk right past his defense of human life and dignity. Many of us on the left felt relieved when the pope said the Church cannot be obsessed only with issues like abortion, contraception and same sex marriage. Many of us on the left had long felt that these issues were given exclusive priority, at the expense of other important issues like poverty and immigration. But, the pope did not say to ignore abortion, he said that we needed to be concerned about other issues too.
We all recognize the need for a division of labor. The USCCB has a Committee on Domestic Justice and a Committee on Pro-Life Activities. But, we, as Catholics, are challenged by Pope Francis to embrace the entirety of the Church’s teachings, which are an organic whole, rooted in the same Gospel and the same apostolic tradition. If you claim to be a fan of Pope Francis, but you ignore his call to embrace the entirety of the Gospel, your claim does not ring true. A division of labor should not lead to a divided heart. Pope Francis does not have a divided heart.
In January 2014, Bishop Michael Olson was ordained as the Bishop of Fort Worth, Texas. That day he said, “Jesus wants followers, not admirers.” I think the same could be said for Pope Francis. And, the pledge to Walk with Francis is a perfect way to make sure that we are not admiring the pope from afar, or only in our words, but following him in prayer, in service, and in action for justice. I am glad the pope is coming to the United States. I will be even more glad if millions of Americans take the Walk with Francis pledge and ignite a new Pentecost of activity and prayer after the manner of the Master. Kudos to the Archdiocese of Washington for all the work that went into the website – and for coming up with this idea in the first place. Now it is up to the rest of us to walk the walk, to Walk with Francis. See you along the path!