Ministering in the age of Francis

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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BOSTON — His papacy began on Mar. 13, 2013; he is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years. Pope Francis has only worn the Holy Father mantle for less than two years and yet, “it’s now hard to remember a time when there wasn’t a Pope Francis; he’s had such a huge impact,” said Father Thomas Washburn, O.F.M.

A native of New Bedford, Father Washburn now works in Boston as the executive director of the Franciscan Provincial Ministers Conference for the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Malta and Lithuania. During the 2013 conclave, and having worked with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM, Cap., Father Washburn entertained the idea of seeing Cardinal O’Malley become pope, speculating about that in his blog (www.afriarslife.blogspot.com) which was picked up by America magazine. 

In that post, along with his speculation, Father Washburn touched on how the incoming pope should bring a very St. Francis-like approach towards the papacy: “How much this moment in our history as a Church was really calling forth for someone like St. Francis; someone who was connected to the people,” said Father Washburn, who became a Franciscan friar in 1991 and ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2000. “Being a native New Englander, most of us have had some experience with Cardinal Sean and his very-much-like-Francis approachable approach, very accessible, very Gospel-centered, and very humble. Obviously our good cardinal is still in Boston and we’re happy for that, but all those things I was hoping for in a pope were realized in Pope Francis.”

Father Washburn was like all of the world wondering exactly who Jorgé Bergoglio was, but upon hearing that the newly-elected pope chose the name “Francesco,” Father Washburn was “in tears” and has been “drawn to Pope Francis from the moment of his election.”

Father Washburn has read and studied much about Pope Francis, admiring how in his short time in the papacy he has defied being locked into one defining category and “seems to have melded the Jesuit and Franciscan into one. Today, in Pope Francis, for the first time in the history of the Church, we have a Jesuit pope with not only a Franciscan name but with a Franciscan heart,” he said.

Ministering during the age of Pope Francis has brought a new awareness “to be members of the flock and ministers to the flock” and Father Washburn has given many presentations on Pope Francis, helping others to appreciate some of the themes that the pope has put forth, including joy, mercy and the love of the poor — three particularly-focused themes that Father Washburn feels Pope Francis continues to return to over and over again.

“Pope Francis has reminded us that no matter what we believe, no matter who we are, whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, no matter what doctrinal or theological positions we hold and follow — no matter what — as followers of Jesus, as ministers of His Church, we are called to be inspired by joy,” said Father Washburn.

Pope Francis wants us to see that how we are Christians is just as important as the fact that we are Christians, and joy should be a defining quality of the way that we are Christians. We know this, said Father Washburn, because the pope made joy the topic of the first publication, “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel).

Father Washburn cited an excerpt as an example of the pope’s desire for Christians to find that joy: “There are some Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter — an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm.”

“This simple message of joy, coming from this loving, gentle and joyful face of the Holy Father, has taken such root because we live in a world that so often lacks joy,” explained Father Washburn. “We live in a world that is wracked by seemingly endless wars; we live in the culture of political divisiveness; there is poverty and violence ever closer to home; we have difficulties in our families, in our Marriages, among our children and our friends. And if we are honest, we must say that we live in a Church that does not always project an image of joy.”

Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air to shake away the gray that surrounds us, and that we should all appear as joyful messengers. Mercy then follows joy, and that when love spills out into a life full of joy; the natural result is that we become more merciful in the ways we deal with one another, Father Washburn continued. No one has the power to judge, that our job isn’t to exclude one another — at that moment, what we have before us is not only a person, they are our brother or sister, and we should always look upon them with love and treat them with mercy.

Extending this mercy begins with realizing that we are first recipients of the same mercy from God. The pope said, “It is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy because it is deep beyond our comprehension,” but Father Washburn said that the pope states that “God’s Face is the Face of a merciful Father Who is always patient” and that His patience is “His mercy.”

“God loved us first,” explained Father Washburn. “The well of God’s mercy for us is deep beyond our imagination. But He wants us to live by showing that same mercy to others. As He treats us, we are to treat others. Who are we to judge? We are no one at all. But who are we to show mercy? Mercy is our common call. As ministers, mercy is our mission statement, our job description. As constant recipients of mercy from God, we have plenty of that same mercy to offer to others.

“Joy and mercy are important qualities the pope is encouraging us to embrace as central to our identity, and that brings us to our third theme and it focuses on the question of, what are we to do? To answer the question of what we are to do, this pope has returned again and again to the theme of our love for the poor. This focus on the poor in his papacy was born literally in the instant of his election and is tied to his choice of the name Francis.”

Each theme builds on the first — joy brings mercy, and with mercy comes an offer of mercy to others, especially the poor. During his papacy, these moments of joy, mercy and love of the poor have been shown through image and action –— Pope Francis doesn’t just preach the Good Word; he lives it.

“That is so Franciscan,” said Father Washburn, quoting St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”

“This is exactly what this pope is doing so well,” he said. “Just mention any of these images, whether it’s washing the feet of prisoners, embracing the boy with cerebral palsy on his first Easter, kissing the head of the man covered with lesions — we’ve all seen these images and these images have spoken powerfully to everyone.

“Pope Francis is reminding us once again that this love for the poor is meant to be at the heart of our call too. He is reminding us that we are most perfectly, beautifully and clearly Church when we are in direct contact with these most beloved of Jesus — the poor. That joy and our mercy finds its best and most perfect direction when we focus it towards the poor who are all around us.”

Pope Francis understands the power of symbol and imagery through these most human of responses to those around him. Bringing humility and walking the same path as his namesake, Pope Francis is “just like the person whose name he has taken,” said Father Washburn.

Having come of age under St. John Paul II, Father Washburn said he’s been so fortunate to have lived during the last 40 years, and experienced three different popes who all brought their unique perspective to the papacy — and to see a pope elected with a similar Franciscan heart as his own: “I had such a great devotion to John Paul and all that he was, the way he reached massive audiences and made our Catholic message available in such a wide scale. I had such a deep appreciation of the intellect of Pope Benedict. But the thing I say about Pope Francis is, I want to be like him.

“This is what the pope, I believe, is trying to teach us — joy, mercy and love of the poor. Imagine what our Church, our world, could look like if we all took up this simple but radical proposition — the Gospel was meant to be lived. The Gospel can be lived. Let us pledge to be this kind of Church.”

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts