By Most Reverend Gerald R. Barnes
Few would dispute that Pope Francis has gotten our attention in the first year of his papacy. His emphasis on the core of the Gospel, to be a welcoming Church and to care for the poor, has been embraced by many. The fact that he has done this with such obvious joy and has made a priority of being close to the people in both real and symbolic ways hasn’t hurt either. I mean, did you ever think you’d see the Pope on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, let alone Time magazine’s “Man of the Year?”
Yet, while Pope Francis’s leadership of our Church is surely inspiring, his words challenge us in significant and fundamental ways. True to his Jesuit roots, the Holy Father is gently reminding us that our faith must be reflected in our actions, in how we are living our lives each day. The season of Lent is now upon us and presents a good opportunity for deeper reflection on what Pope Francis is saying and where he is leading us as Catholics.
The best roadmap for this is his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or, “The Joy of the Gospel.” While a slightly longer read than we might be used to in this day and age, it is written in a very straightforward and relatable style that reflects Pope Francis as we have come to know him. I won’t attempt to capture the document here but I cannot recommend highly enough that you read the Exhortation, yourself, as part of your Lenten prayer and reflection. Beforehand, you may want to discuss among your family, in your parish ministry, prayer group or small faith community how Pope Francis has impacted your faith. Here are some suggested questions:
What stands out for me about Pope Francis?
What impact or question has been raised within me resulting from something Pope Francis has either said or done?
What personal challenges or affirmations am I receiving from Pope Francis’s ministry?
How do you see Pope Francis leading us into the New Evangelization?
In the meantime there are many opportunities right here in our diocese to respond to the Pope’s call to care for the poor during Lent. We are kicked off our local response to the worldwide campaign to end hunger that is supported by Pope Francis by asking all who attended Ash Wednesday services to bring a can of food with them. Our parishes and Catholic schools are promoting the CRS Rice Bowl program as a way for us to support our starving brothers and sisters around the world. There are also many parish food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the diocese that offer us a chance to minister directly to and encounter the poor and hungry who live among us.
We may imagine that this experience would be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. But this may be exactly what Pope Francis means when he urges us to “go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”
I offer my prayer for you this Lent that you grow closer to God and that you embrace your call to discipleship in the building of His kingdom during this exciting and challenging time.