Here in the United States, we are still in the after-glow of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, while today in Rome the long-awaited Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops begins. Four popes have now visited the United States. In each case, the visiting pope was rapturously received. All those visits were considered successful at the time. Evaluating or analyzing longer term consequences is another matter - much harder to judge, if indeed it is possible to do so at all. That is because the primary impact of such an occasion is spiritual and takes place in the hearts and minds of those whose souls have been somehow touched by the event. For the many thousands who attended Pope Francis's Masses in Washington, New York, or Philadelphia, or any of the other events at which he spoke, or who watched his motorcade pass by them, their experience was likely a once-in-a-lifetime sort of event - a spiritual "high," in which even those who were not physically present but who watched on TV could feel themselves participants and be touched by the spiritual power at work in the event. At the doctor’s office and elsewhere this past week, all sorts of people – non-Catholics, for the most part – have wanted to talk to me about the Pope and have evidently been moved in some way by his presence. There is no way of knowing how many people were uplifted in some way, who felt God's grace at work in them - or who will feel that later in life as a result of participating in this event. There is no way of knowing how many were touched in various human ways, how many felt invited to re-examine an old faith or consider it anew. The many movements of grace that may have been at work this past week will hardly ever in this life be fully known to us, let alone be measurable by us! But for all of them we ought to be truly grateful.
Officially, what brought the Pope to America was the triennial World Meeting of Families, and the theme of the Synod starting in Rome today will be The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World. Here too we have no immediate way of measuring the Pope's impact on the main focus of his visit – families. Families, as we all know, come in all shapes and sizes - stable families, struggling families, split families, single-parent families, and what are nowadays called “untraditional” families of all sorts. What the Pope’s visit and the forthcoming Synod have highlighted for us, however, is that this issue of the family, as Paulist President, Father Eric Andrews, has recently written, “deserves robust conversation and dialogue. While we know and are blessed by many healthy and happy families, we are painfully aware of other families in crisis.”
Today’s Gospel [Mark 19:2-16] has 2 messages – one focused on our human life lived in family and society, and another focused on our life in God’s kingdom. The Old Testament reading from the creation story [Genesis 2:18-24] highlights the social message about marriage and family life, while the reading from Hebrews [Hebrews 2:9-11] highlights the Gospel’s 2nd message.
The Gospel gets at marriage and family life by the back-door of divorce. Now, you don’t need me to tell you how deeply entrenched divorce has become in American life, especially in the last half-century or so. (I believe that now there are even greeting cards you can buy to send to people when they divorce.) What once was relatively rare and obtained only with difficulty and usually only as a last resort has now become as common as marriage itself. And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As we also know, nowadays fewer people are even getting married at all. Just about half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with about three-quarters of the population half a century ago. Meanwhile, the number of Catholic marriages taking place in the United States has declined even more - by almost two-thirds – during the same time period.
And then, thanks to increasing economic inequality in our society, there is also a very visibly obvious class component to this phenomenon of fewer people getting married.
During his visit to the United States last month, Pope Francis invited the Church in the United States to reflect on the many circumstances currently challenging marriage and family life in America and offered us some suggestions for how to think about and respond to these and other pastoral challenges.
Addressing the Bishops in Philadelphia, the Pope noted that: Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust. ... Today consumerism determines what is important. .. A consumption which does not favor bonding, consumption which has little to do with human relationships. ... The result, the Pope warned, is a culture which discards everything that is no longer “useful” or “satisfying” for the tastes of the consumer. … a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness. …. Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.
Having painted such a bleak picture of our present situation, however, the Pope went on to warn against the kind of negative responses that so often seem to characterize such conversations in our society and, sadly, even in our Church.
Should we say, he asked rhetorically, “it was all better back then”, “the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?” No, the Pope answered. Instead, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion. The world today demands this conversion on our part.
Whether as participants or spectators, when we look back on these amazing six days, and do as Pope Francis challenged us to do, and ask ourselves the question Pope Leo XIII asked Saint Katherine Drexel, if we ask ourselves what we are actually going to do, then there will be plenty of opportunity for individual conversion of heart and renewed common activity as a Church community.
In particular, these six amazing days have been an invitation to all of us to re-examine our own priorities and activities to align them more closely and effectively with the priorities Pope Francis has articulated for the Church. Of course, different people respond differently to the movements of grace, and there will always be a variety of vocations in the Church focusing on different dimensions of discipleship. Not everyone is called to do exactly the same things or even to care about all the same things with exactly equal intensity. Even so, right now one immediate and pressing challenge to the American Church as a public institution in society is to embrace the particular priorities the Pope has highlighted for us – high among them certainly, welcoming immigrants, caring for the environment, and a certain sort of pastoral stance regarding how the Church’s teaching is presented and practiced in the public square.
As Pope Francis said at his final Mass in Philadelphia: Our Father will not be outdone in generosity and he continues to scatter seeds. He scatters the seeds of his presence in our world, for “love consists in this, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” first [1 John 4:10]. That love gives us a profound certainty: we are sought by God; he waits for us. It is this confidence which makes disciples encourage, support and nurture the good things happening all around them. God wants all his children to take part in the feast of the Gospel. Jesus says, “Do not hold back anything that is good, instead help it to grow!”
Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 4, 2015.