Encountering Pope Francis through beauty and joy

| Bishop Andrew Cozzens | October 6, 2015 | 0 Comments
Pope Francis arrives at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York Sept. 25. CNS

Pope Francis arrives at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in the East Harlem area of New York Sept. 25. CNS

The last full week of September felt like our entire country had an encounter with a saint. People I met who were paying attention to the visit of our Holy Father were surprised by joy. Many could not explain what was happening in them as they watched Pope Francis on TV or waved at him from a crowd.

But they knew it was beautiful.

This is what happens when you encounter a saint. You experience a little more about the truth of God’s love and the truth of yourself. You experience joy, the joy that is born of knowing that love is real and can change the world. This experience of love brings out the best in you, and you want to be a better person. This was my experience of meeting Pope Francis.

Humility of heart

I felt it first when he walked into the Cathedral of St. Matthew, and I was there with all the bishops of our country. There was a palpable joy in the room. His speech — in my opinion one of his best — let me see the beauty of the humility of his heart. He spoke about the bishop as imitating Jesus, who is “meek and humble of heart.”

His words helped me understand his actions, especially when he spoke about dialogue. He pointed out that Jesus, who was God himself, came to us in humility and so “the richer the heritage which you are called to share with ‘parrhesia’ [boldness or freedom], the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.”

He asked us always to remember that the “brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.”

It is not that we doubt our positions —  we know they are true and certain because we preach Christ and not ourselves — but we are always willing to listen and to meet others with love. As he said, “We need to learn from Jesus, or better to learn Jesus, meek and humble; to enter into his meekness and his humility by contemplating his way of acting; to lead our churches and our people — not infrequently burdened by the stress of everyday life — to the ease of the Lord’s yoke.”

Sharing a servant’s joy

Then there was the privileged moment I had with Pope Francis when Mary Jo Copeland, along with her husband, Dick Copeland, and I got to go to the Vatican Embassy in Washington to meet Pope Francis personally.

We were in a room of about 12 people who all had different reasons for being invited to this brief but intimate encounter. When the Holy Father came in, I was once again overwhelmed by the sense of love that emanated from him.

He slowly went through the room and greeted each of the people individually. He was not in a hurry, and he listened to everyone and met their eyes even if he did not say much. In Spanish, I introduced Mary Jo to him, and she asked him for a blessing to continue Christ’s work for the poor, which he freely gave, and then embraced her. Then she invited him to come to Minneapolis to soak the feet of the poor with her. He smiled and embraced her again.

Then he turned to me, and I had a chance to speak to him personally. I told him I was from a diocese where two bishops had recently stepped down. He asked, “Which diocese?” I said, “The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.” He nodded knowingly and embraced me. He said he was praying for us. I felt so much the love of his heart and was very consoled to know that he knows the difficulties we have gone through.

The beauty of family

The whole week reached a summit with Pope Francis coming to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. His speeches there were once again simple but profound. Rather than entering into all the debates about marriage and family that have troubled our culture, Pope Francis simply put before us the beauty of the family as an instrument of God’s love.

As he said on Saturday night, “All that is good, all that is true and all that is beautiful brings us to God. Because God is good, God is beauty, God is truth.”

Then he went on to show how this happens in the family: “The most beautiful thing God made — so the Bible tells us — was the family. He created man and woman. And he gave them everything. He entrusted the world to them: ‘Grow, multiply, cultivate the earth, make it bear fruit, let it grow.’ All the love he put into that marvelous creation, he entrusted to a family.”

And when God wanted to pour out love on the world by sending his Son, God also did this through a family, he said: “And where did he send his Son? To a palace, to a city, to an office building? He sent him to a family. God came into the world in a family. And he could do this because that family was a family with a heart open to love, a family whose doors were open.”

Pope Francis went on to explain that he is well aware of families’ struggles, remarking with a smile “sometimes we throw dishes.” Yet even though the family is affected by sin, the family is still our way to grow in love through learning to embrace the cross. When we learn to love in our families through struggle, the family becomes a “workshop of hope.”

Teaching like Jesus

When, still basking in the joy of encountering Pope Francis, I read the Scripture verse for Monday morning Mass, I was struck that Pope Francis taught the way Jesus did. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, he did not argue back.

Rather, he took a little child and put it in their midst and said “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me” (Lk 9:48). Jesus put before them the beautiful humility of the child, teaching them through the image of truth, beauty and goodness.

Pope Francis was doing the same thing. He held up before us in his talks and in his life the beautiful image of the family as a place of love where a mother and a father, children and grandparents, all become instruments to help us grow in Christ’s love. He did not debate with us but offered us an image of truth, goodness and beauty.

How was Pope Francis able to have this profound effect on so many of us? He was radiating the love of Jesus Christ! He is so filled with Jesus, he has encountered Christ so profoundly, that when he comes close to us, Jesus Christ also comes close. His presence teaches because his heart is open to Jesus.

However, as Pope Francis himself said in the “Joy of the Gospel,” this call is not just for him, but for all of us: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts.”

Perhaps as we celebrate World Mission Sunday Oct. 18, we can reflect on Pope Francis’ visit, and we can experience the call anew, which he gave us to be missionary disciples. We can commit ourselves, with humility and meekness to sharing with others the beauty, truth and goodness of a relationship with Jesus Christ. We can also support those missionaries who are trying to give this witness in far off lands.

Then when people encounter us, they will also encounter a saint.

Bishop Cozzens is an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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Category: Only Jesus