by Mary Laver, St Vincent de Paul parish POWER co-leader
This summer, I had a conversation about Pope Francis that I’m still thinking about, with a woman I know in my parish’s sister-city in El Salvador.
Maura lived through the civil war there 25 years ago and despite the agony of having 3 of her children kidnapped, helped form a group of former freedom-fighters into a strong community. I shared my excitement with her about Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia this fall. She nodded and said, “Pope Francis is good. But here in El Salvador, Monsenor Romero changed our lives!” She was referring, of course, to Archbishop Oscar Romero, champion of the poor.
What I heard her offering me was not a “ranking” of two church officials, but a witness: The greatness of a leader depends on whether and how we allow them to change us! It’s too soon to see whether that will happen with Pope Francis. Not because he isn’t saying or doing enough. But because most of us, including me, haven’t yet mustered the courage to respond fully.
That said, I have a confession to make that might ring a bell for you too: I’m tempted to feel a bit smug about Pope Francis and PICO being virtually BFFs. Aren’t we in the vanguard of the social change he’s talking about?
Well, that may be true. But reality checks are everywhere. As I write this, Donald Trump is blasting his politics of exclusion and “survival of the loudest” on national TV. Our children’s education is under-funded. Our criminal justice system and immigration policies are breaking up families. Racism runs through every news cycle like a toxic thread. Even in our faith communities, there are painful and divisive arguments about whose neighborhood merits a worship site and whose does not.
It’s enough to drive us to despair. But Pope Francis suggests another way, nourished by tending to 3 primary relationships:
1- With other people, one by one:
Although he is “CEO” of one of the world’s largest institutions, Francis makes time to listen to people, to be moved by their stories, to see the divine image in them and allow that experience–he calls it “encounter”–to shape his understanding of what needs healing in the world.
As an organizer, I ask myself: Do I limit my 1-on-1 meetings to people like myself, who probably won’t challenge me? When I meet people in my parish, am I focused on adding their names to a phone bank list? If so, that’s a strategy, not an encounter. I look at Pope Francis and see that doing big-vision work and being present and open to all kinds of people are what keep him both grounded and inspired.
2- With our Communities
Francis speaks out boldly on issues that harm communities, like the wage gap and global warming. I’m sure he has a knowledgeable research staff. But the real root of his credibility is his deep personal interest in whatever it takes for communities to thrive. This is clear in his personal life: Rather than live alone in the papal apartment, he chooses to live with others in community.
In my own life, my parish has always been where I go for good liturgy. But the liturgy is good because it’s carried by people who come together Sunday after Sunday, from many zip codes, to experience God’s love in each other. We have our share of tensions, some with undertones of racism, sexism or homophobia. But we work at it. Over time, I’m seeing that a congregation is a microcosm of the human family: Full of suffering and confusion, but also enormous capacity to transcend differences and stand together for the just and loving world we owe our children. Owning both our frailty and our strength–alongside other frail, strong congregations–we can be a force for change.
3- With God:
As a frequent night-meeting attender, I was surprised to learn that Pope Francis rarely goes to evening events because he rises very early for prayer. The impact of that daily time with God was clear from his first moment as pope, when he asked the crowd in St Peter’s Square to pray for him, before he gave them the traditional papal blessing. It’s clear that he knows who and Whose he is.
At POWER meetings, we start with a faith reflection. This is a wonderful, enriching practice. But it’s doubly powerful when the pray-er has an active spiritual life that illuminates the words. Any of us who heard Rev Robin Hynicka speak of white privilege at the POWER gathering in memory of Michael Brown know what I’m talking about. His words were transformative not only because of his oratorical skill, but because he shared them out of his deep personal faith, replenished often. Before we are organizers, we are God’s. “In God’s hands,” as Rev. Greg Holston signs his email.
So, here we are at this amazing “Francis moment,” full of possibility for people of faith to rise up and re-make our society! How can we ramp up our voices in public and take on unjust systems? We’ll soon do that critical planning together, as POWER and all the PICO federations commit to “40 days of Faith in Action” this fall. But looking at Pope Francis, I think the path to bending the arc of history toward justice starts with my letting myself be changed into a more compassionate and God-centered person, who can draw others in my community into the demanding, exhilarating work of systemic change that will empower us all. I think my Salvadoran friend would agree.