Monday, September 28, 2015

In the Afterglow of the Papal Visit

It will take time to process the experience of this papal visit. Four popes have now visited the US - one of them (Saint John Paul II) more than once. In each case, the visiting pope was rapturously received, even Paul VI and Benedict, who were both much less personally charismatic than either John Paul or Francis. All those visits were considered successful at the time. Evaluating or analyzing longer terms consequences is another matter - much harder to judge, if indeed it is possible to do so at all.

That is so mainly because the primary impact of such an occasion is spiritual and takes place in the hearts and minds of those whose souls have been somehow touched by the event. For the many thousands who attended Pope Francis's Masses in Washington, New York, or Philadelphia, or any of the other events at which he spoke, or who watched his motorcade pass by the experiences was likely a once-in-a-lifetime sort of event - a spiritual "high" in which even those who were not physically present but who watched  on TV could feel themselves participants and be touched by the spiritual power at work in the event. There is no way of knowing how many people were uplifted in some way, who felt God's grace at work in them - or who will feel that later in life as a result of participating in this event. There is no way of knowing how many were touched in various human ways, how many felt invited to re-examine an old faith or consider it anew. There is no way of measuring the Pope's impact on the main focus of his visit - families. That includes stable families, struggling families, untraditional families, etc. The many movements of grace that may have been at work this past week will hardly ever in this life be fully known to us, let alone be measurable by us! But for all of them we ought to be truly grateful.

The more public consequences of the Pope's trip are obviously more susceptible to analysis and measurement. While Congress stood and applauded the Pope's invocation of the Golden Rule, it remains to be seen whether and how our public officials will be guided by that Golden Rule in their treatment of immigrants and the marginalized - or even in their treatment of one another. Past experience is not so encouraging in this regard. On the other hand, hope is one of the highest virtues!

Secular society was certainly an object of the Pope's solicitude during his visit, but so too in an even more special and obvious way was the Church community - in particular the Church in the United States. The Catholic community in the United States - bishops, priests, religious, and lay - have all been challenged (as I said in my homily yesterday) to listen to a new note, to hear in a new way, and to open a new door (or, to use Pope Francis' chosen image, to break down some walls).

Here, the personal and the communal coincide. If participants and spectators look back on these amazing six days and ask themselves the question Pope Leo XIII asked Saint Katherine Drexel, if we all do as Pope Francis challenged us to do and ask ourselves what we are actually going to do, then there will be plenty of opportunity for individual conversion of heart, culminating in renewed communal ecclesial activity. (Hopefully, as in Saint Katherine Drexel's case and as happened after Saint John Paul II's visit to 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, this may also spur some significant increase in priestly and religious vocations in the US)

In a particular way, these six amazing days have been an invitation to the Church in the US to re-examine its pastoral priorities and institutional activities to align more closely and effectively with the priorities Pope Francis has articulated for the Church. Of course, different people will respond differently to the movements of grace, and there will always be a diversity of vocations in the Church focusing on different dimensions of the call of discipleship. Not everyone is called to do exactly the same things or even to care about all the same things with exactly equal intensity. Even so, the challenge to the American Church as a public institution in society - and to her pastors at all levels - is to teach and practice the particular priorities the Pope has highlighted for us this week - among them, certainly, immigrants, the environment, the death penalty, and a certain sort of pastoral stance in regard to how the teaching of the Church is presented and practiced in the public square.

There is certainly a lot there to start with!

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