Editorial: Seize this moment of encounter

Now we have the project, Catholics in particular, of discerning and acting on the meaning of Pope Francis' U.S. visit -- six days, three cities, endless throngs, Masses and prayer services, and 18 public talks. Perhaps it is enough to realize that this country, cynical and divided as it is in 21st-century ways, rearranged itself in three of its major metropolitan centers to accommodate the visit of a religious figure.

For a brief moment, we could put aside the polls and our anxieties about the future of the faith and take solace in the millions who poured into venues, sacred and secular, to experience the inexplicable: a 78-year-old who doesn't watch television, prays four hours every morning and wears the same thing every day -- and happens to be the coolest guy on the planet.

Three popes have previously visited this country, and we have come to anticipate that these figures will dispense something of the holy that we don't encounter in the day-to-day.

But there was something visibly and palpably different in the Francis experience. He didn't command the stage, making demands of the flock in the manner of St. John Paul II, an actor who loved the spotlight. He didn't retreat into the cerebral thickets in the manner of theologian Pope Benedict XVI. He didn't capture the imagination with a single compelling line, as did Pope Paul VI in 1965 during his speech at the United Nations, the ominous clouds of nuclear nightmare hanging low: "No more war, war never again!"

Different popes perceive and fill different needs, depending on the age. It may turn out to be no small matter that the cardinals in 2013 elected a Jesuit. The young Bergoglio experienced the rigorous training to which all Jesuits are subjected, a long and demanding formation process aimed at weeding out the spiritually immature.

To the order, unity does not mean sameness or suppressing inquiry for the sake of calm. Ecclesiastical ladder-climbing is not part of the expectation or culture.

Francis instead limps to the microphone and draws us in with soft speech, anecdotes from life experience familiar to all, a bit of self-deprecating humor, and the insistent invitation to go encounter others, especially those on the margins. He exudes an authenticity expressed in moments that are no longer spoken about as simply symbolic.

Even hardened reporters are realizing that, for Francis, homeless shelters, prisons and soup kitchens are not mere photo-ops. They are the places he prefers to be and they are the places in which he wishes to see the church.

Two and a half years of such images teach more powerfully than a thousand pages of text.

As astute as Francis is in drawing the church to the margins, his movement in that direction has limits. His congratulations to the bishops on their handling of the sex abuse crisis, acknowledging their pain and later commiserating with priests while not mentioning the victims, feeds the conviction that those in authority still do not understand the depth of the wounds suffered by so many. Francis eventually met with victims, certainly among the community's most vulnerable, and issued strong words.

The other margins left unvisited (except for his enthusiastic endorsement of women religious) were women in the church, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Neither group is going to disappear, and the ambiguity with which the church approaches each -- and often avoids approaching them -- strains credibility on so many other issues.

While no pope is perfect or able to address all issues at once, Francis pointed the way to a major and overdue corrective for the church in the United States, where a minority of culture-warrior bishops have fashioned the church's language and image in recent decades.

During his meeting with the bishops in Washington, and later in his speech before Congress, the model for how the church was to conduct itself in the culture became unmistakably clear. Begin with the fact that he used the term "dialogue" 20 times in those two addresses.

To the bishops, he said the church must promote "the culture of encounter" and that "dialogue is our method." The dialogue should occur first among the bishops and expand to include priests, laypersons, families and, finally, society at large.

Catholic leaders should not engage in "harsh and divisive language," which "does not befit the tongue of the pastor" and "has no place in his heart." Such language, he said, "may momentarily seem to win the day" but "only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing."

The extension of the pope's earlier admonition to "not obsess" on one or two components of Catholic social teaching was on view repeatedly as he expanded our notion of life issues to include those on death row, children dying of hunger and neglect, immigrants drowning in the search for a new life, and the Earth itself.

In his final homily, he exhorted Catholics to not be afraid of new things and called on all to resist "the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles."

Francis isn't interested in a church that wins culture wars. He wants a church that transforms cultures.

It almost seems, in that sentiment, that Francis was listening to his priest friend in the Buenos Aires slums, Fr. José María di Paola, Padre Pepe for short, who spoke to NCR's Soli Salgado in Argentina last month. "If Argentines don't seize this moment, it is because we are the biggest fools in the world for wasting this spiritual awakening he [Pope Francis] brought to our churches. But if we do not change from the bottom, we will not change anything," he said.

"People always want magic," he went on. "They think, 'If the pope does this, then people will come closer to the church.' But people will approach the church when the parish doors are open, when we provoke action from inside the neighborhoods -- be it in the slums or not."

We can take our instruction on discerning and acting from someone who knew the pope well long before he was pope. Get up. Go out. Do something.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here