August 15, 2013
Originally posted August 18, 2013
Gestures Louder Than Words
Resisting the cape and fancy shoes
Bowing his head to receive the people’s blessing
Paying his own bill at the hotel after the Conclave
Riding in the Cardinals’ van and not in a separate limo
Living outside the Papal Apartments and eating in the cafeteria with others
Putting his own coins in the machine to get a cup of tea
Washing a Muslim Woman’s feet, among others, on Holy Thursday
Picking up a young child and putting him in his Popemobile seat
Not sitting on the Papal Throne but stepping down to greet people
Making his own phone calls and beginning the conversation with “It’s Jorge”
Visiting the Vatican’s Church of St. Anne to say Mass and greet people afterwards
John Allen, Jr. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter: Francis at 100 days: ‘the world’s parish priest’ (June 21-July 4, 2013), “Simplicity shines through in Francis’ reliance on gestures rather than elaborate pronouncements.” He also remarked, “Francis seems determined to function as a pastor. . . it’s how Catholics tend to think about a parish priest. Their basic question usually isn’t what his policy positions are, but whether he inspires.”
And inspire he has, giving people around the world, not just Catholics, hope for a brighter future that includes a renewed solidarity with the poor, a greater accessibility to ordinary people and confronting clerical privilege that is self-serving rather that servant-oriented.
These gestures of hope are examples of what could happen on the local level of the Catholic Church as well.
A “Positive Image” Audit For Parishes
Parishes can learn a great deal from the reaction to Pope Francis’ friendly and inviting style. Taking stock of what strangers and church members who are on the margins experience when they encounter the parish might uncover hidden lapses and point to positive gestures that could inspire and motivate people. Performing an audit might entail handing out blank cards at Mass and asking people to jot down one thing that would improve the positive image of the liturgy. Ask them, “If you were not a member but were walking past our church before Mass, would anything entice you to come in to take a look, especially if you were a young adult?” The liturgical ministers might pay attention to one another’s presence and then compare notes about what would be more “Francis-like.” Pay attention to how the greeters welcome people into church. Encourage them to go out to meet the people, as Francis has done, rather than waiting for people to come to them.
The presiders could gather with a few trusted parishioners to examine their own way of imitating the Pope’s positive approach. The same could be done by those responsible for the music used at the various Masses.
A Positive Image Audit for Parish Staff
The parish staff might do its own “Image Audit,” paying attention to how people are treated when they contact the office, whether emails and phone calls are returned in a timely manner, how volunteers are affirmed and rewarded for their work, whether the interaction with lay leaders is as co-workers and not gofers, to what extent transparency is encouraged and fostered, along with clear and concise communication. A similar audit could be taken by all those involved in formation, service ministry, pastoral care, parish organizations and administration. Is the Pope’s model of “simplicity, humility, remaining largely apolitical, and being remarkably accessible to ordinary folks,” in the words of John Allen, reflected in the parish? It seems to be working for the Pope, why not on the local level as well?
– Fr. Tom Sweetser SJ