Grace and peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ, today and always. By the time you read this column (unless you’re one of those among us who check the parish website for an advanced look at our bulletins!), our Holy Father Pope Francis will have visited our fair city and departed. Frs. Peter, Sean, and I will have attended the papal mass at Madison Square Garden along with a lucky group of our parishioners. The prayer vigils preceding the pope’s visit will have happened. Francis will have addressed the United Nations and visited Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. He will have blessed our beautiful Central Park in a great procession. And while Pope Francis is in Philadelphia for the last leg of his American journey, we will be talking about all the good things that happened when he was here in our midst.
There has been so much excitement leading up to the pope’s visit and rightfully so. But very soon, an important question will become obvious: “What Next?” Now that Francis has come and gone, what do we do next? How do we keep the momentum of his visit going?
I have been so impressed by the various responses to our parish effort to address the problems of climate change and environmental degradation. One ministry after another is finding a way that’s right for them to embrace the call of Francis to heal our damaged planet. Let me encourage you to keep all of that going as one way of answering the question “What Next?” There are others ways as well and the Spirit will guide us to them.
Also, let’s not forget what’s coming up in October: the Ordinary Synod on the Family in Rome and then the start of the worldwide Jubilee Year of Mercy in December. In short, the Holy Spirit is clearly moving within the Church and in the world. This is an ecclesial moment, a pivotal time to move forward in the kingdom of God. And yet, even in the light of all this, I cannot forget a haunting observation that one of our beloved, longtime parishioners recently made to me in private. She said “Fr. Marina, I love Pope Francis with all my heart. But I’m worried that Jesus is beginning to take a back seat to him!”
Wow! How does a pastor respond to a concern like that? I felt for her very much and appreciated her wonderful honesty. But, based on what little I know of Francis personally, I’m guessing that overshadowing Jesus (if that’s possible) is the absolute last thing he would ever want to do. In fact, as soon as our pope spots the 225 ft. high mural of his persona on 34th and 8th, he is bound to be disappointed that the mural was not one of our Lord instead.
The Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ on earth. The two are linked forever as the pope represents Jesus Christ in a way that no other human person can. But still, our parishioner is right. In the end, it always has to be about Jesus. Regardless of charisma or affect, integrity or impact, we look to Christ and we follow him. All good leaders, even popes, come and go but the Son of God is ours forever. Francis is leading the way to Christ, as all good Christians should. And he is doing so uniquely, as his vicar and in such wonderful fashion. So this isn’t an either/or scenario. We have Pope Francis and we have Jesus Christ. We can never make the mistake of equating the vicar with the one he represents. The former must always yield to the latter. And what an amazing yield we are seeing! So let us continue to look to Francis to lead us to Jesus, trusting that the Spirit is already among us. Because whenever we are visited by that presence and it is felt within our hearts, we are bound to ask the question “What next?”