Pope Francis: A Glenmarian?

Brother David Henley, Glenmary vocation directorApril 2013

This past month I have repeatedly heard the same word being used to describe Pope Francis I: simplicity. The news has been filled with anecdotes and stories of Francis' simple presence among the people. Likewise, social media has been overflowing with pictures, tweets, status updates and comments about all of Pope Francis' actions. Most of my conversations with Catholics and non-Catholics alike have begun with people asking me, "What do you think of the new pope?"

A friend who is a minister in another church exclaimed to me, "We just love everything Pope Francis is doing and saying!" And almost every time I hear a story about his actions, I think that it sounds similar to the actions of my fellow Glenmarians.

On the first Sunday after being elected pope, Francis chose to celebrate Mass at one of the Vatican's more intimate settings, the Church of St. Anne. The video of Pope Francis greeting all the worshipers after Mass went viral! But Glenmary priests and brothers do the same every Saturday and Sunday in the missions. Since most of our mission parishes are small compared to a large city parish, Glenmarians know all the mission members by name and have time to greet them all.

When someone is missing in a small mission, everyone notices. Weekends are always an important time to see and connect with everyone. Usually by the time the last people filter out of Masses, Glenmary priests and brothers have filled their week's schedule for home visits because of the invitations they've received and the needs they've heard about from the congregation.

I was struck by Pope Francis' personal, down-to-earth approach in calling the owner of the Buenos Aires kiosk who delivered his daily newspaper in order to cancel his subscription. When the owner's son answered the phone, at first he did not believe it was the pope and thought someone was playing a prank. Glenmarians try to get to know all the people in the mission areas we serve, not just the people who come to church on Sunday. By supporting local businesses in the mission counties, we are valuing the people who run them—the majority of whom are not Catholic.

Later it was reported that at the end of each month, Pope Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, would return the 30 rubber bands used to wrap his daily paper. I do not know any Glenmarians who return rubber bands to newspaper delivery persons. But I do know many Glenmary priests and brothers who walk the back roads collecting aluminum cans as they go, so they can turn them in to their local recycling centers for cash and use the money to replenish the small missions' outreach funds.

On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis chose to wash the feet of young detainees at a juvenile detention center outside Rome. As he said during his first General Audience, "We must not be content to remain in the enclosure of the ninety-nine sheep; we have to ‘step outside,' to search for the lost sheep together with Him, the one furthest away."

Most Glenmary priests and brothers regularly visit the juvenile detention centers, county jails and maximum-security prisons in their mission areas. According to the Catholic Bishops of the South pastoral letter titled Challenges for the Criminal Justice Process In the South, "All seven of the states with the highest incarceration rates in the nation are in the South." The South and Appalachia are the areas where Glenmary missioners serve. Our role as ministers is to serve all the people who live in the mission counties—especially those who have the greatest needs.

Not only Pope Francis' actions, but also his words, have inspired us all to move outside our confines. On the Solemnity of St. Joseph, he said that "(the pope) must open his arms to protect all of God's people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison." (Mt 25:31-46) Likewise, Glenmary reaches out to the lost and forgotten people who live in the mission areas.

Pope Francis also reminded all priests—and religious, for that matter—with his words at this year's Chrism Mass: "We need to ‘go out,' then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the "outskirts" where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight..." Grace "comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all."

I think that Pope Francis' simple actions and straightforward words have caused us all to reflect on our faith and how we live it out. Like Glenmarians, he seems to  enjoy connecting with people and having relationships. People are noticing. In our mission ministry, Glenmarians attempt to preach the Good News in all things, but especially in our ministry of presence with the People of God. We can only carry out this ministry as followers of Jesus. And I thank God for people like Pope Francis who give us an example of how we are called to follow. I think his message of love, forgiveness and peace is the same message the Church has been preaching for centuries.

In a recent letter to his fellow Glenmarians, president Father Chet Artysiewicz wrote that Pope Francis' "style resonates with Glenmary. He certainly appears to be a man of the people with a deep concern for the poor." Glenmarians have been serving the mission areas of the United States for nearly 75 years. Blessed Mother Teresa may have summed up Pope Francis' and Glenmary's approach to ministry best when she said, "We can do no great things—only small things with great love."