Soon Pope Francis will begin his apostolic visit to the United States in Washington. As we prepare to welcome our Holy Father, it seems fitting to reflect on his journey and ours.
In his first homily after being elected, Pope Francis spoke of life as a journey and he reminded us cardinal-electors of the importance of always walking together in the presence of the Lord. One day earlier, the new pontiff had stepped onto the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to ask the crowd below – and the millions watching around the world – to pray for him and one another as the Church undertook a journey of solidarity and love.
Throughout his ministry, our Holy Father has asked the faithful and all of society to walk together, side-by-side, towards a future of hope and charity. This desire is also reflected in the theme chosen for this visit to Washington – “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis.” The path we take, and our destination too, is Jesus Christ, who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” affirms the Pope. “Whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1, 3).
Our Holy Father wrote beautifully about this pilgrim journey in his first encyclical. Describing how the star led the Magi to the Lord in Bethlehem, he noted, “For them God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery. . . . Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises” (Lumen Fidei, 35).
Having received God’s light and experienced his love, we cannot now keep this gift to ourselves. Pope Francis reminds us that all of the baptized are called to share their Gospel joy as missionary disciples and Spirit-filled evangelizers (Evangelii Gaudium, 262). Like Mary, who set out on the road in haste, and like the first disciples whom Christ commissioned to go and bring the Good News to the whole world, “it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear” (Id., 23).
While some may serve as missionaries in foreign lands, for most of us, our mission territory in sharing Christ’s love is closer to home, perhaps at the family dinner table, the office coffee machine, or in our community or neighborhood. In this, like the Good Samaritan, the Church and her members must necessarily have a preferential option for those poor persons who are suffering on the side of the road. “Put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way,” urges Pope Francis. “We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voices to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii Gaudium, 198).
Tens of thousands of people, young and old, have answered that call through efforts such as “Walk with Francis,” which I have written about often. By their prayers, charitable service, and active labors toward the common good, taking one step at a time in solidarity with the Holy Father, they bring Christ’s love, mercy and hope to others, especially those on the margins of society.
Individuals, parishes, schools, businesses and community organizations across the region have said, “Yes,” they will “Walk with Francis” on this Gospel journey. There are too many to list here, but as an example, young adults from the Church of the Annunciation are joining parishioners and members of other faith communities to bag 8,000 pounds of potatoes for area food banks. The students of Don Bosco Cristo Rey high school, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have pledged to serve the homeless through the Cup of Joe program with Catholic Charities and they also made this an evangelization opportunity by making a video of their pledge. And students from Our Lady of Mercy School are participating in a “Footsteps with Francis” project, pledging to do things like playing basketball games with children who have disabilities and visiting the elderly at Byron House.
The Second Vatican Council underscored our call to manifest God’s kingdom in today’s world as we Christians continue on a pilgrimage toward heaven. In this journey, we never walk alone – united in Christ, we are led by the Holy Spirit (Gaudium et Spes, 1). As we prepare to welcome Pope Francis, walking with him in faith and in prayer, in the mercy we show others and in our efforts to increase the kingdom, let us also invite those we encounter along the way to join us and share in the joy of the Gospel.