Romero Remains Relevant

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All day, every day, I hang out with about 55 Salvadoran teenagers. I’m a teacher, and I work with immigrant students in a neighborhood full of pupuserias and cumbia. Inside the walls of our bright, beautiful schools, the kids make it clear—they miss El Salvador. Their families aren’t clinging to Salvadoran culture because they want to change the US, but rather because they didn’t want to leave their homes at all. The journeys across the deserts and rivers of Central America and Mexico were not to come benefit from some mythical American dream, but quite literally to save their lives and the lives of their children.

The Death Squads of the Civil War have become history, but the violence continues. After the Salvadoran Civil War, the US had one major export to El Salvador: the gang culture of Los Angeles, which filled much of the power vacuum in the wake of the Civil War. In the San Diego International Law Review, Juan Fogelbach wrote about the risk factors that lead Salvadoran youth to the gangs: neglect, violence, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a family relationship to gangs. When seeking a solution to these problems, few options are offered to the poor of Central America.

In El Salvador, a handful of elite oligarchs continue to disenfranchise the rest of the nation. Even as mining revenue grows the country’s GDP, most families continue to live in abject poverty. Archbishop Óscar Romero, soon to be a saint, saw the same forces at work some forty years ago. He recognized that taking on the cause of the poor is dangerous, for individuals and for the Church. But without taking that danger upon ourselves, we cannot fully live Christ’s greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

In the month before he died, Romero traveled to Europe, where he accepted an honorary document at Louvain and implored St. John Paul II against supporting the government in El Salvador. When speaking at Louvain, Romero said, “Once again it is the poor who enable us to understand what has really happened. That is why the Church has understood the persecution from the perspective of the poor. Persecution has been occasioned by the defense of the poor. It amounts to nothing other than the Church’s taking upon herself the lot of the poor.” Romero must continue to be our model for taking on the passion of the poor and accepting our own persecution for the defense of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Salvadoran community in the US continues to experience persecution. Our government has stripped them of protection, and our immigration laws put families trying to escape violence in danger of deportation that is more like a death sentence. Can we put ourselves and our Church on the line to protect them the way Romero did?

Romero doesn’t only matter in the face of violence and injustice. He is also relevant to a Church battered and divided by politics. Especially in the US, it can be so easy for us to align ourselves with a party and to assert that a “real Catholic” votes a certain way. It isn’t so easy or simple. Romero’s only partisanship was to justice, to truth, to holiness. He didn’t broadcast the names of the missing and killed because he was a Marxist member of the Liberation Front. No, he preached against repression and murder because he believed in the unalienable dignity of the human person. The only label he wanted for the Church was one of unity and Incarnation.

In a homily given on November 11, 1979, less than six months before his assassination, Romero said: “We are not being political when during the homily we point out political, social and economic sins. Rather this action is the result of the Word of God becoming incarnated in our reality which often does not reflect the Word of God but rather the reign of sin. Therefore, the Word of God points out to people the paths of redemption.”

Santo subito.

Brigid Hogan is a teacher, writer, and reader who lives in Northeast DC


Why Do People Enjoy Films?

Why do people enjoy films? What is it about the cinema that we find so captivating? What draws us to sit in a dark room with strangers or alone on our living room sofas and stare at a screen for hours—sometimes experiencing a story we’ve visited many times before? From the first public film in 1895 to the thousands of films per year produced in 2017, audiences show up time and time again to watch light dance across a screen and tell someone else’s tale. Why? It can be argued that, initially, the human fascination with cinema stemmed from a sense of wonder at the possibility of harnessing and projecting moving images in the first place. It may not have mattered what was on the screen, for the very fact that a moving image was, in fact, on the screen garnered interest and allure. A century after film’s origination, this reasoning cannot explain why film is an 88-billion-dollar industry. While there are certainly still people who regard the ability to harness, manipulate, and project light an amazing feat, the vast majority of film-viewers must be drawn to the medium for alternate reasons. I suggest that the human captivation with cinema exists not because of what film is—controlled shadows and light—but because of what film does—sacramentalize existential human experiences.

I, myself, am intrigued and repeatedly fascinated by film’s ability to sacramentalize human experience. Having dabbled in the field of film production for several years, I appreciate the artform and understand the unique combination of creative instinct and technical skill required to produce a film. However, having more thoroughly immersed myself in the field of theological study, I am continuously intrigued by the myriad ways that these two areas of study illuminate each other. In doing theology, I often study God by studying God’s creation—creation that includes the wondrously multifaceted being referred to as “human.” While the human is just one being among many interconnected and mutually dependent creations, I have found a focus on the human (albeit not exclusively) to be beneficial to understanding how God works in the world. Viewing films with a framework of theological anthropology allows any film that captures human experience and shares it on screen to also provide a window through which one views the divine. It is this opportunity to witness film’s sacramentalizing effect on human experience that repeatedly draws me to the cinema. It is this invitation to experience humanity from different perspectives that encourages me to watch and re-watch my favorite films. It is this convergence of storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making that captivates me, as a theologian, and insists that I participate in the ongoing love that humanity has for the cinema.

For the theology scholar, film offers “a compelling alternative route to religious experience at a time when we desperately seem to need it, with film functioning either as proxy for religion (Lyden, Plate) or a means of enhancing or perhaps even revealing existing faith (Sison, Nayar)” (Joseph Kickasola, John C. Lyden, S. Brent Plate, Antonio Sison, Sheila J. Nayar, Stefanie Knauss, Rachel Wagner and Jolyon Baraka Thomas, “Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 32: 53). Storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making are all things that can be achieved through a written narrative, as well. But, there is something different, and I argue advantageous, about participating in this process via film. Using film in theology allows one to explore major theological themes in a contemporary climate, reminds one that theology has an unavoidable and important public dimension, and enables one to awaken the emotional and aesthetic aspects of faith that are often left unstimulated when reading text on a page: “Precisely because film as a medium works through the creation of an emotional response first and foremost, as a reaction to the visual image presented, film invites theological reflection to begin through an emotional channel” (Clive Marsh, “Film and Theologies of Culture” in Explorations in Theology and Film, 32-33). Viewers experience the material sensually and then think about it, instead of encountering the material intellectually and then being asked to apply it to lived experience. The primacy of sensory experience allowed by incorporating film into the study of theology provides a new way with which to engage theological material that is beneficial to the rigorous theology scholar and the non-scholar, alike.

Film’s power of visual imagery results in great influence over modern society. People are often likely to have more vivid memories of something they see and hear than something they read. Because of this, film’s influences naturally persist outside of the theater complex: “Film has stepped down from the screen to infiltrate political, social and religious lives. The argument here is that religion and film leave the temples and theatres, synagogues and living rooms, and meet in the streets, stairways, parking lots, weddings, funerals, cities and deserts of the US” (S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, 79). People do not leave their filmic encounter at the door of the cinema. Once experienced, it unavoidably informs their lived experiences from that point forward. In a sense, our film viewing experience is nothing short of sacramental.

Stephanie Clary serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.


Time for a New New Deal

The summer before I entered the Jesuits was a magical one, full of sunsets, road trips, awesome Western thunderstorms, bison, and a cave. I was an interpretive ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. In the southwest corner of the Black Hills, the cave is one of the longest in the world and the plains above are home to one of the few herds of purebred bison.

All of these opportunities stemmed from my internship through the Student Conservation Association, a program initially founded to model the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and develop future conservation leaders. The long term impact of the CCC and other New Deal programs is evident today. From buildings constructed, to the recording and collection of personal stories, to planting forests, New Deal programs helped shape our nation and communitarian values. As I look at crumbling infrastructure, parks in need, and the number of Americans that go unheard, I am unequivocally convinced: America needs a new New Deal.

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Our Great Depression

Our current economic data hides many flaws. It can be easy to point to the number of jobs created, the rate of unemployment, and the GDP as figures of economic strength. Whereas the Great Depression featured a jump in unemployment to 20%, we presently sit at a measly 4.1%. Examining this data alone might point to a lack of US economic hardship. But while the unemployment rate is low, other factors such as underemployment, poverty, infant mortality, and the wealth gap say otherwise. For many Americans, we are living our own Great Depression.

The wealth gap in the US is almost as high as 1929, which you may remember as the year the stock market crashed to usher in the Great Depression. While this is a relational rather than causational fact, the wealth gap nevertheless points to a tragic maldistribution. This wealth gap is even worse when examined through a racial lens. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the wealthiest 100 households now own about as much wealth as the entire African American population in the United States. Among the Forbes 400, just 2 individuals are African American –­ Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith. Moreover, the wealthiest 186 members of the Forbes 400 own as much wealth as the entire Latino population. Just five members of the Forbes 400 are Latino including Jorge Perez, Arturo Moreno, and three members of the Santo Domingo family

In addition to this great inequality, other statistics demonstrate the undercurrents of America’s bleaker economic reality. Over 20 percent of America’s children live below federal poverty standards. Even more accurate measurements that account for the needs of families place childhood poverty at a staggering 40 percent.

Another key indicator of population well-being is the infant mortality rate. Of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world, the US has the worst infant mortality rate at 6.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. It again gets worse when examining it by race. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control reported that white children have an infant mortality rate of 4.9 deaths per 1,000 live births; black children, in comparison, have more than double that with 10.7 deaths per 1,000 live births.

America is haunted by entrenched poverty, one which it created and sustains. This deep poverty lurks across major cities, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, America’s farmlands, and more. While we can point to the Great Depression as a massive fall for America, the preceding Roaring Twenties had their own deeply embedded poverty that often ran unnoticed until the Depression. To truly break these long-standing cycles, America needs to recreate programs for the good of communities so often forgotten.

A New New Deal

The number and variety of New Deal programs is a bit staggering, ranging from the creation of the US Travel Bureau to the National Housing Act. These efforts sought to reduce poverty and inequality while bolstering the health of the nation. Three programs from the original New Deal stand out as having incredible potential to attack the issues at the heart of our current Great Depression: the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC); the Glass-Steagall Banking Act; and Social Security expanded into a national healthcare system.

The FSCC began as a way to simultaneously bolster food prices and provide food to families in need. The program connected and funded food from over-stocked farmers to impoverished communities. In 2016, over 40 million Americans (including 13 million children) were food insecure, meaning that they were unable to afford nutritious and sufficient amounts of food. Meanwhile, America threw out enough food in 2012 for every American to have 1,200 additional calories in their daily diet. Recreating the FSCC could drastically increase the stability of smaller and family farms and ensure that low-income Americans have enough healthy food to eat.

Passed in 1933, the Glass-Steagall Act created a buffer between investment banking (i.e. the stock market) and commercial banking (i.e. everyday deposits & loans). The act helped reduce bank closures from 10,000 at the start of the Great Depression to fewer than 600 from WWII into the 1980s. It also led to the creation of the FDIC. While the Glass-Steagall Act would not directly supply food or other immediate relief, it would decrease inequality and create greater protections for consumers.

Lastly, the United States needs a national healthcare system. Social security initially included a program to provide a baseline of healthcare to all Americans, but pushed it aside to assure passage of the rest of the Social Security Act. Guaranteeing access to healthcare would reduce costs, expand Title V and maternal health, and tackle issues like the boom of poverty-related illnesses like dengue and Chagas disease.

Protecting Public Lands

The original New Deal also had an incredible impact on America’s public lands through the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and even the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). These projects largely started as a way to employ millions of jobless young men, as well as preserve a rapidly degrading land.

The continuing impact is tremendous. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC planted over 3 billion trees, erected over 3,400 fire watch towers, created drainages on millions of acres of land, and helped to restore wild rivers and habitats. They worked to preserve the land, as well as make it more accessible, improving over 800 parks nationwide.

While the CCC frequently worked on land-focused projects, the WPA created the infrastructure to enjoy these incredible places. The list of WPA accomplishments is somewhat absurd, including but not limited to: 40,000 new buildings, 85,000 improved buildings, 1,600 parks, 1,000 libraries, hundreds of lodges, and thousands more spaces for recreation. The lasting impact on America’s public spaces is difficult to quantify. Unfortunately, Congress shuttered both the CCC and WPA with the onset of World War II. We need a new New Deal to renew our commitment to protecting our parks and public spaces.

Recovering our History

The original New Deal also recognized the value of the stories that accompany the lives of American people. For example, the Federal Writers Project collected the stories of hundreds of former slaves. This incredible project realized the importance of people so often forgotten. The value of these stories is hard to articulate. While historians at that time tended to focus on great figures and incredible deeds, the WPA shifted the focus to the stories of those unnoticed.

We need to recapture our history. I wonder what would be the result if we took on a similar project today. In my mind, several groups stand out who have stories and lessons that are worth retelling: those who survived the Great Depression, those who participated in civil rights efforts, veterans of 20th century wars, itinerant laborers, and the people of Appalachia. Each of these groups includes people so often embattled by stereotypes, those who regularly read stories of themselves full of falsehoods and half-truths. America would benefit immensely from people having the opportunity to tell their stories, what happened in their lives, and more. Our empathy, cura personalis, and commitment to justice would drastically increase if we would drastically increase if we re-started the Federal Writers Project in an effort to recapture our history once again.

Communitarian Values

Each of these – economic justice, protecting public lands, and recapturing our history – were essential components of the New Deal. Our current economic and social climate points to the need for a new New Deal.

At the root of it all, I believe that America has lost its tradition and memory of communitarian values. In examining our past, we must realize that we were strongest when we took care of whole communities, recognizing our dependence on communities and their dependence on us.

America’s national childhood (1715 to 1789) took place during a boom of individualism. We grew from philosophies that emphasized our personal liberties and freedoms, and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. Despite this grand philosophy, it has hardly ever been our reality.  Even while espousing the value of individual hard work, communities bonded to support each other. While our national rhetoric depends on John Wayne-style cowboys who go it alone, our truest identity depends on the stories from the whole community.

I believe that deep down, America truly needs to rediscover itself as a community. It must meet its own neighbors, share their stories, and share in their work. A new New Deal can create programs which can make that happen. We must be willing to offer of ourselves for the betterment of our community and country.

This article by Ken Homan, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


Practical Holiness

In his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis offers a vision of holiness that is both deeply spiritual and deeply practical. I expected the former. In fact, when I first heard that the document would be about holiness, I wondered if it would have any practical resonance. A reflection on holiness could be inspiring, certainly, but would it speak directly to the challenges of faith in modern life?

I realize now that I did not give the Holy Father enough credit. Throughout the five years of his papacy, he has been consistently concerned with how the rubber meets the road for our Catholic faith. Gaudete et Exsultate is no different. This practical focus is yet another example of Francis the pastor responding to the needs of his flock.

Holiness often seems irrelevant or unachievable in our oversaturated, hyperconnected, postmodern world. Our lives are cacophonous, far from the cloistered silence that we imagine when we think of holiness. We divide our time between jobs, school, family, friends, hobbies, fitness, civic engagement, entertainment, and those rare moments that we can carve out for ourselves. Email, texting, and social media mean that others have access to us at every hour of the day. Silence is a foreign concept.

With all of these competing, urgent demands on our time and energy, faith becomes just one more responsibility to compartmentalize. It has its place in our lives (often, for forty-five minutes on the weekend) but that is where it remains.

Gaudete et Exsultate calls us to resist that compartmentalization, in favor of seeing our entire lives as a journey towards holiness. For Pope Francis, holiness is something we do. It has as much to do with how we carry ourselves through our lives as it does the amount of time that we spend in prayer: “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (14).

There are times when the document reads less like a spiritual reflection and more like a collection of best practices. Take, for instance, his discussion of the Beatitudes (65-94), which examines how each one can be put into practice today. Or, immediately after, read his treatment of Matthew 25, where he connects Christ’s great criterion for Judgment with the current plight of migrants and refugees (102-3). He even talks about how Christians should treat each other online (115). Holiness is active.

At the same time, Francis realizes that our world desperately needs silence. “We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din,” he says. “How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God?” (29). Contemplation and action go hand in hand. Carving out time for silent prayer may be countercultural, but not because it rejects culture. To the contrary, “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service…. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission” (26).

This is the vision of holiness that we need today: deeply spiritual, active, challenging, and real. Instead of fleeing the world to find God, Pope Francis calls us to a greater mindfulness of God’s presence in our everyday lives and how responding to God’s call sanctifies our daily activity.  In his own words: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness” (31).

John Dougherty is the director of campus ministry at Saint Peter’s Prep in NJ, and you can follow him on Twitter @johndoc23.


It Will Happen Again and Again

I get asked for more spiritual advice than I’m actually able to give. I understand why it happens. I write about Christianity in public, and I clearly think about it a lot. But history is rich with contemplative sorts who spent much more time trying to understand the faith than living it faithfully. Like them, I’m a flawed vessel for the only thing that fills me. I’m aware of the history of the religion — parts of it, anyway—but the Christian life is as mysterious to me as anyone.

But if I’m asked to help, I’ll try to. So here’s all the spiritual advice I have, which was learned through experience, not study.

About an hour passes between the second time Peter denies knowing Jesus and the third and final time. It must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty. There was time to think.

Maybe Peter thought about some way to still stop this entire process, this thing that was prepared to happen. That had been his first instinct, after all. Maybe he thought about fleeing. Maybe he thought about the next question that would come, and what he would say. Maybe he tried to steel himself to affirm his friendship with Christ, come what may. Maybe he had the exact words in mind.

And maybe he knew by then, after those first two denials, the likelihood that he would find his strength now was rather low. Jesus had said as much, anyway.

The man must never have known a longer hour. Hope is a thorn in the side of doubt, not a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It aches. And at the end of it all he does —you will—still fail. Peter denies Christ again. The rooster crows, and Jesus looks at Peter, because even though Peter has denied Jesus, Jesus has not denied him. His opportunities are not yet exhausted.

The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni, the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life. Shusaku Endo’s Kichijiro, who repents only one more time than he apostatizes, is perhaps the ideal form.

In an era where solutions are judged by their efficiency, it can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.


Why I’m (Still) Angry at Stephen Hawking

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I get really mad at Stephen Hawking sometimes.

I think about this man – this great, honorable man who taught us so much about the world – and I find myself frustrated by him. Frustrated by his atheism. Confused by his outlook on life – by his unrelenting stance on the meaninglessness of the universe beyond random chance. How could he not see God in that which he studied?

For me, Hawking’s life and death are intimately personal. The disease from which he suffered is one I know too well. My grandmother was diagnosed with ALS with dementia in 2009. She died less than a year later.

I see Steven Hawking, and my first instinct is that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that his family got so much longer with him than I got with my grandma. It’s not fair that he got to live so long with this disease and that because his access to technology and his own body supported him for so long, he’s seen as a miraculous success for this disease with no cure.

But there’s also something about Hawking and his view of life that deeply troubles me. I know well the suffering Hawking had to experience in his life. There were likely moments where he struggled to speak something he desperately needed to express to a loved one, who could not decipher the meaning behind the words that his mouth could not enunciate. He will have woken up one day unable to move his fingers – later, unable to support his body on his legs, and still later unable to eat, drink, swallow. His mind was trapped inside a body that could no longer contain him, and he was given an expiration date and no hope of a cure.

As a devout Catholic and as someone who watched my grandmother and my family grapple with ALS, I have trouble reconciling Hawking’s atheism with his disease – almost as much trouble as I have reconciling his genius, his love of the cosmos, with his belief that there is nothing beyond it. I cannot bear to think that this suffering that he underwent, that my grandmother underwent, and that thousands of individuals per year undergo has no purpose – that it simply is. Read More


The Mercy Pope: Five Takeaways from His First Five Years

Do you remember where you were five years ago, when the white smoke signaled that the College of Cardinals had selected the successor to Pope Benedict XVI? I do. I was standing in the campus ministry office at Boston College, dumbfounded at hearing that the conclave has chosen a pope from Latin America … a Jesuit … and that he had chosen the name “Francis.”  (Remember the confusion over whether he would be “Pope Francis I” or “Pope Francis”?)

Five years into his papacy, it might be easy forget that Francis has been a pope of surprises. Sure, he’s the first non-European pope in well over a thousand years and the first Jesuit, which is shocking enough. And yes, his chosen name is unprecedented, prompted by advice from his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who hugged him and exhorted, “Don’t forget the poor.” At the moment of his introduction at St. Peter’s Square, he broke with tradition by asking the 150,000 people gathered to pray for him before offering his first blessing as pope. The surprises continued: he refused to use a platform to elevate himself over the cardinals when he was introduced as Pope Francis, eschewed a private car and rode the bus with his brother cardinals instead, and elected to live in a small suite in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the Apostolic Palace, unlike his predecessors. His simple lifestyle has elicited widespread praise, as well as his work to make the Vatican more hospitable to those experiencing homelessness in Rome. Francis’ pontificate orbits around consistent words and actions marked by humility, tenderness, and inclusion. Perhaps the best word to describe Pope Francis’ example is mercy. If Pope John Paul II’s legacy is tied to his travels to evangelize (104 international trips to 129 countries, drawing immense crowds), he may be considered “The Missionary Pope” while Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on ecological stewardship earned him the nickname “The Green Pope,” and so it appears that Pope Francis may be remembered as “The Mercy Pope.”

The world has never seen a pope like Francis. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of his pontificate, five key traits highlight his character, intentions, and impact: his radical vision for the Church, the way he mediates mercy, his attention to the power of place, his commitment to listening, and his support for synodality.

1. Francis has a radical vision for the church:

When Francis met with 5,000 journalists to introduce himself as pope, he described his vision for the Church as one that “is poor and for the poor.” This hearkens back to the words of Pope John XXIII, who, in a radio address a month before Vatican II, proclaimed his desire for a “Church of all and in particular the Church of the poor.” This is a radical vision for the Church because radical refers to “going to the origin” or the “roots.” This reflects the core values of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46), as well as the witness of the first members the Church (e.g., Acts 4:32-35).

Francis’ vision for the Church cannot be reduced to a service agency, however. In Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”), Francis articulates his vision for the Church as reclaiming our relationship with God and one another. The Church is to be a living encounter with Christ, which means that Christians are to recognize Christ in the other as much as they are called to be Christ for the other. This is not some weighty, pious burden but an invitation to deep and lasting consolation resulting from experiencing the love of God in and through loving others. Francis’ vision for the Church is rooted in communion and a mission of renewed enthusiasm marked by joy and hope. Francis doesn’t just insist that joy is the best barometer of the Christian faith; he radiates joy in every encounter.

At the same time, Francis’ radical vision for the Church is to be like a “field hospital after battle.” The Church goes to the margins to tend to the needs of those suffering the effects of personal and social sin. Drawing near others involves savoring and sharing the “Joy of the Gospel,” which “tells us tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 88).

Francis has not changed any doctrine, but he seems to be shifting emphasis from defining or developing doctrine to the process of personal and communal discernment. Not only does this stem from his Jesuit formation (in the tradition of St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises”), but it highlights the freedom and obedience of one’s conscience as articulated in the Catechism (no. 1776). This is crucial for Francis’ vision of the Church as constituted by an informed and empowered laity whose full, conscious, and active participation is guided by spiritual discernment. This helps us look to the future where we all have a role to play in being available to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst, cooperating in the Church’s communion and mission. Any discussion of “The Francis Effect” on the Church has to account for the way Francis is energizing the laity to embrace their baptismal vocation to partner in the priesthood of Christ (CCC no. 1268).

Ultimately, Francis’ vision for the Church is a movement toward reform. Francis calls the Church – from personal beliefs and actions to institutional practices and structures – to turn away from sin, repent for the ways we have failed to love, and rededicate ourselves to Jesus. Each day is an opportunity to be rekindled by the “fire of Easter.”

2. Francis mediates the mercy of God:

When, as a new pope, he answered the question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Francis’ reply was simple: “I am a sinner.  This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Francis reveals a person deeply in touch with the experience of God’s mercy. (This, too, points to Francis’ Jesuit formation, including the first week of the “Spiritual Exercises.”) In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, Francis writes:

“The centrality of mercy, which for me is Jesus’ most important message, has slowly evolved over the years in my work as a priest, as a consequence of my experience as a confessor, and thanks to the many positive and beautiful stories that I have known … [mercy] means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive … we can say that mercy is God’s identity card.”

Francis explains that he sees God’s character and purpose through the lens of the gerund (and neologism), “mercifying:” the act of showing mercy. We typically translate mercy as loving-kindness, but as I have written previously, this betrays the rich and varied meaning of the word in light of its biblical heritage. Mercy involves strength and steadfastness, graciousness and gratuitousness, faithfulness and tenderness, forgiveness and responsibility, solidarity and accountability. Mercy is “the measure by which we shall be judged” (to borrow a phrase from St. John of the Cross).

Mercy is the crux of Francis’ theological vision, the true north of his moral compass, the heart of his imagination for what is possible. Mercy inspires Francis’ pastoral approach, which he urges his brother priests and bishops to share in becoming more like shepherds “who smell like sheep” because of their close accompaniment with the people of God. This resonates throughout Amoris Laetitia, where Francis highlights mercy as a test of the Church’s welcome, especially to those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and in “irregular situations.” He insists, “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it” (no. 296). Not only is mercy the work of God in our midst, but it is the “criterion for knowing who his true children are” (no. 310).

Francis is quick to point out that mercy is not without a backbone; it is essentially tied to truth and justice. However, Francis’ emphasis on mercy – and the way he mediates mercy in his words and actions – underscores his belief that mercy should lead the way forward. In Amoris Laetitia, he affirms that mercy should inspire our personal and communal “pastoral discernment” to be “filled with love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (no. 312). Mercy motivates Francis’ commitment to inclusion (a theme that can be traced from his early days as pope, to his 2017 TED Talk, “The Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone,” to the current campaign to #ShareJourney with migrants and refugees through the four-step process to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate our brothers and sisters on the move, those who – just like us – are seeking peace in their families, homes, and neighborhoods). In those moments when Francis embraces a child, a man covered with tumors, or rushes to the side of a police officer who fell off her horse, he incarnates God-Who-Is-Mercy in the world and encourages us to do the same.

3. Francis knows place matters:

Francis recently shared in an interview that he doesn’t like to travel and he didn’t intend to travel much as pope. But as the migrant crisis – especially those fleeing chaos in the Middle East and Africa – continued to bring hundreds of desperate people to the shores of Italy, Francis said their suffering was like a “thorn in the heart.” Francis celebrated Mass on the tiny island of Lampedusa to denounce the “globalization of indifference” that turns a blind eye, deaf ear, cold heart, and closed hand to the thousands of people fleeing violence, economic deprivation, famine, drought, and flooding. In his homily, Francis reflected:

“Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!” and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”

Francis’ critique of the “globalization of indifference” goes beyond condemning moral apathy; he also points to the solution, which is accomplished by following the example of the Samaritan. This means interrupting our schedule, putting our agenda on hold, going out of our way and into the ditch to draw near to others in need. Proximity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed will burst the “soap bubbles” of our self-concern (as anyone who has engaged in direct service knows). We learn about solidarity through contact with other people. This firsthand encounter serves as the catalyst for the kind of compassion, courage, generosity, and hope required to be the kind of people who routinely “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

In a globalized, digital world, one’s physical place might seem to be less significant. But Francis understands that we are formed by our social location. This is why he took up residence in the Vatican guesthouse, why he opts for a Fiat instead of a limo, why he can be found ministering to and with those in need, day and night.  When Pope Francis was asked about moments of particular consolation during his papacy, he discussed his visit to Tacloban in 2015.  He went to show his support after the island was devastated by a hurricane but he was the one gifted by all the smiles – the irrepressible joy – of all those who came to see him and celebrate the Eucharist together. Even in the midst of a tropical storm, Francis’ physical presence was a consolation to the faithful, just as they have been to him.

This is why Francis doesn’t just insist that we should be building bridges, not walls; he goes to the US-Mexico border to celebrate the Eucharist with people separated by the border wall. Standing at the border near Juárez (where more than 1500 women and girls have been murdered since 1993), Francis brings attention to the place where more than 6,000 migrants have died since 2000, a “mass disaster” that goes unnoticed by too many. When Francis celebrates the Eucharist at the border, he shines a light on the Body of Christ as a “body of broken bones,” disfigured by drug smuggling, human trafficking, and unchecked violence. In his homily, Francis speaks from this place to conscientize Christians and all people of good will, pleading, “Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts … No more death!  No more exploitation!  There is always time to change, always a way out and always an opportunity, there is always the time to implore the mercy of God.”

By word and deed, Francis exhorts us to move our feet to draw near our brothers and sisters rather than stand in judgment at them from a distance. This is what it means to be a church that is like a “field hospital after battle,” going to the frontiers that are from the center of status, privilege, and power. When we take up the vantage point of the vulnerable, we better understand the circumstances they face, the personal and structural obstacles to their dignity and freedom, and the ways that this restriction of choice becomes a deprivation of life.

And Francis recognizes that when we cannot take up a particular location ourselves, we can still be formed by having a place brought to us. This is why he celebrated Mass with crosses and a chalice made from the wood of capsized boats that carried migrants. (Theologian Fr. Dan Groody travels with a chalice made from this same wood, giving emphasis to the connection between Christ’s suffering and those of these “crucified peoples.”) Every time we attend Mass, we are invited to think, feel, and pray in union with the whole Church, a church that Francis calls to be “without frontiers and a mother to all.” Francis’ travels bring to light forgotten people and places, making the Church more “catholic” (i.e., “pertaining to the whole” or universal) in seeking to affirm unity in its diversity.

4. Francis listens:

When Francis goes to the margins, he doesn’t only go to evangelize; he also goes to be evangelized. He takes seriously Jesus’ claim that he can be found in the least, the last, and the lowly (Matthew 25:40). He seeks to learn about the lived experiences of others and to draw on this wisdom to enrich the whole Church. This is why he made sure Laudato Si’ was informed by bishops, scientists, and people living in the Global South so that his call to care for all creation would be theologically sound, empirically-grounded, and prophetically inspired by the experiences of those who are already facing the effects of climate change (the poor are being hit first and worst). As a result of this listening, Pope Francis clarified how and why the great command to love of God and neighbor is essentially linked to care for our shared home, our ecological common good.  He asserts the need for ecological conversion and integral development: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature” (no. 139). Francis beckons for each of us to pause from the busyness of our daily routine to “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (no. 49).

Francis’ habit of listening is surely what gave rise to his famous “Who am I to judge?” line in response to a question about homosexuality. It is the reason why, earlier this year, he married the flight attendants on a plane in Chile – and reminded critics that “sacraments are for people” (which sounds a lot like Jesus responding to his doubters in Mark 2:27). Francis has been formed by this practice of listening, and this is beginning to shape the Church, as well. His stress on listening was the impetus for the Lineamenta that informed the pastoral priorities in Amoris Laetitia. During his visit to the United States, he highlighted the need for dialogue, including his willingness to be a part of that process himself. In the midst of controversy surrounding the church’s mishandling of priests’ abuse of children, Francis continues to listen to victims of abuse – almost weekly. (“They are left annihilated. Annihilated!” he reports.) Francis’s listening will continue to shape the Church in the future, as he seeks counsel on questions related to married priests, women deacons, and even as he considers what his adversaries and critics have to say about him.

Francis’ commitment to listening shows his spiritual maturity. He seeks to be attentive and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, not just in his own life, but among the whole people of God. His careful listening also points back to his Jesuit formation, in the tradition of St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises.” Those of us who have been Jesuit-educated can easily detect the ways that Francis “seeks God in all things” (through the “spiritual senses” to grow in dedication to and affection for what God loves), how he is a man “for and with others” (avoiding that “which might separate us from others”), how he demonstrates “care for the whole person” (making us responsible to promote human dignity), and his dedication to a “faith that does justice” (to pursue the fullness of life for all). Francis’ discernment of the will of God is rooted in the vision of Vatican II: listening to the joys and hopes, griefs and sorrows of the Church. He does more than “read the signs of the times;” he hears what they mean to God’s people. Like other beloved South American bishops (e.g., Câmara and Romero), Francis feels with the Church. His pastoral approach is profoundly Latin American, marked by a theology of accompaniment en conjunto (together). It is about sharing – not wielding – power as a discipleship of equals.

5. Francis embraces synodality:

Of course, listening matters little if it does not lead to action. Aside from the emphasis on mercy, the hallmark of Francis’ pontificate has been his support for synodality. For most, the word “synod” might denote a gathering of bishops. But the Greek roots of the word mean “journeying together.” This implies more than listening and shared discernment (e.g., the “evangelical discernment” he outlines in Evangelii Gaudium, no. 51). Synodality requires that we build partnerships. Synods – most notably on matters related to the family in 2014 and 2015 and the upcoming synod on young people that will begin in Rome next week – foster mutual respect, support, and accountability. They promote listening that becomes the pathway for collaboration as “coworkers in the vineyard.”

Synodality offers a more inclusive and egalitarian model for being church. It necessarily involves dismantling barriers to full and equal participation, especially those created by the sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In the spirit of subsidiarity, it assigns responsibility at the lowest effective level. Synodality helps the Church to become more freely and fully one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Francis’ endorsement of synodality is not an abdication of his authority, but a delegation of authority to those who are in the best position to offer fitting pastoral care. Bishop McElroy in San Diego offers an excellent case study of how synodality can expand our imagination of what is possible in response to Amoris Laetitia.

Ultimately, that’s the point of sharing the journey in synodality: to expand our imagination of what is possible as followers of Christ. Imagination is not about fantasy or illusion. Imagination – in a truly Ignatian way – is ultimately a function of our deepest desires. Imagination makes it possible to wake up from the delusion that we are separate from each other or that some lives matter more than others. Imagination calls each of us to be visionaries, seeking the reign of God in our midst so that we can continue to reach for it to become ever more fully realized in our time and place.

Francis’ encouragement of synodality reminds me of the line by the Jesuit priest and poet Dan Berrigan: if you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things. Synodality is a sign of great hope; Francis trusts in the assembly, the people of God, the church. He is confident that the Holy Spirit is leading the way through the sensus fidelium, even if the way forward will not be in clear black-and-white terms. Francis rejects the allure of black-and-white thinking because such a facile approach does not cohere with the rich diversity of human experience. Through synodality, Francis is making room for the Holy Spirit – and for an empowered laity, too.

Indeed, these last five years with Francis give us many reasons to be filled with gratitude, just as they give us reasons to be filled with hope for what the future holds. There is more work to be done and Francis’ fifth anniversary is a time for us to be renewed in sharing this work. What would it look like for you to adopt Francis’ radical vision for the Church, his manner of mediating mercy, drawing near people and places of great need, listening to learn from others, and sharing the journey through collaboration? In what ways can we more fully embrace our baptismal vocation and make more room for the Holy Spirit to lead us where God needs us? What can we imagine possible for ourselves, our Church, and our world?

We do not know what is in store for us next. But Pope Francis offers some sage advice for the journey ahead:

“In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home that has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good that exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for ‘if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator.’ Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (Laudato Si’ no. 244).

Pope Francis gives us many reasons – past, present, and future – to bask in the joy of our hope. The Mercy Pope is a living witness of God’s inexhaustible and unconditional tenderness, just as we are called to be, too.