Pope Francis and the ‘culture of encounter’

Pope Francis and the ‘culture of encounter’

40DaysOfFrancis-LOGO-WEB

Catholic Charities is leading the Diocese of Camden in 40 Days of Francis, a time of preparation for the pope’s visit to Philadelphia. This is the sixth in a series in which leaders in the community reflect on particular issues of poverty in the Diocese of Camden and how people of good will can respond, in the spirit of Pope Francis, to the “cry of the poor.”

What’s your favorite Pope Francis story?

Mine might be the time — just a few weeks into his papacy, when he celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at a prison so he could wash the feet of inmates.

Or, maybe it was just hours after his election, during his introduction to the world over St. Peter’s Square, when he humbly asked the crowd to pray for him before offering his own blessing.

Well, no, that’s not quite it. I think my real favorite story is when, right before a general audience, he disembarked from the Popemobile and embraced a man whose skin was covered with boils. What a gesture of extraordinary gentleness and empathy.

These stories, and dozens of others like them, show how plainly and genuinely the Holy Father loves people, especially those who are often forgotten or pushed aside. I wonder what similar moments we’ll see during his time in Philadelphia this weekend.

Pope Francis is a living example of what he has repeatedly called “a culture of encounter.” I think this phrase is the key to making sure our diocesan 40 Days of Francis campaign and the Holy Father’s visit here do not merely pass by and fade into history.

What does “culture of encounter” mean?

When I hear Pope Francis say “encounter” — or, encuentro in his native Spanish — I picture a big, urban church hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where you can find the St. Ben’s Community Meal six nights a week. Run by Capuchin Franciscans, the meal brings together hundreds of folks of all ages, races and socioeconomic classes. Suburban church groups are encouraged to come — not to serve the meal, but to sit at folding tables and break bread with those who rely on St. Ben’s for sustenance. All of the barriers we erect between ourselves and those who are different crumble away at St. Ben’s. It is in this crumbling that encounter happens.

Building a culture of encounter means leaving our comfort zones and forming friendships with those who live on the margins of society. And as we get to know those who are facing challenges like poverty, hunger, unemployment, or a broken immigration system — the challenges we’ve read about in this space over the past 40 days — we can’t help but feel called to work to change the systems that are oppressing them.

Social ills like these can seem overwhelming if you just look at the numbers. (It is worthwhile to know some numbers, though, so we know what we’re up against: One in five children in South Jersey lives in poverty, and the unemployment rate here is about 40 percent higher than the national rate.) It’s easy to throw up our hands and concede defeat. But the message and example of Pope Francis — indeed, the message and example of Jesus himself — is that our faith does not permit us to sit idly by in the face of evil. Instead, we have the privilege of working together to help make the world better. This work begins with a handshake, a conversation, a shared meal: an encounter.

The 40 Days of Francis campaign is ending; the Holy Father will soon fly home. What encounters might you commit to making in the days to come?

Mike Jordan Laskey is director, Life and Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden.

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