Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.
~ Pope Francis, Laudato Si’
During a homily early in his papacy, Pope Francis departed from his prepared text, as he so often does, to focus on three words from the Gospel that day—“Jesus was walking.” He said:
This is something striking about the Gospels: Jesus is often walking and he teaches his disciples along the way. This is important. Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology… but rather ‘a way,’ a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way as we go, by walking. Yes. . . this is our joy: to walk with Jesus.
In a word, Pope Francis suggests, we are a pilgrim church, a people who discover our joy and vocation “on the way” with Jesus.
“The pilgrim” is the name by which St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, refers to himself in his Autobiography. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis, our first Jesuit pope, favors this dynamic image from the gospels. But the term “pilgrim” also functions for St. Ignatius as a broad metaphor for the spiritual life of every Christian.
The church at Vatican II likewise emphasized this biblical image for itself and for the life of every Christian: Like the Israelites journeying through the desert, like the disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus, we are a pilgrim people of God, says Vatican II. We learn the way by walking. Though we often walk under the shadow of uncertainty, fear, and doubt, by faith we trust that we never walk alone. Our confidence is in Christ, who walks alongside us, though we may not recognize or feel him at our side every moment.
To be a pilgrim requires a radically open imagination. While you have an idea of the destination, you don’t have it all figured out ahead of time. “Take no provisions with you on the journey,” Jesus says to his disciples, “Trust that I will be with you along the way.”
To borrow a term from the arts, a pilgrim works with found materials. You receive and create with the gifts you are given, not only your own gifts and talents—many of which you discover along the way—but also the gifts of all those strangers and new friends, and sometimes enemies, you meet along the road. “And this is not easy, or comfortable,” says Pope Francis, “because the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.” Indeed the pilgrim church, as Francis provocatively describes it, is “a field hospital after battle.”
What would this journeying, this vulnerability and trust, look like in today’s world? Surely it would mean, as we walk the path, to open ourselves to the stranger, the refugee, the alien, the orphan; the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, the atheist; to move toward them and not to run away, or build walls, or hold “them” at a safe distance. Rather it would mean striving with every muscle to build what Francis calls “a culture of encounter.”
Perhaps above all, and most urgently, it would mean that we open ourselves to the suffering Earth, to hear her music, the symphony of her silence, the speech of her rain. It would mean that we learn again how to live in mutual reciprocity with Earth, more humbly, receiving her gifts, and giving back generously in return.
In the lyrical opening of “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis cites his namesake, St. Francis, to call us back as a global human community to the earthen path, and forward to a new way of being:
1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
The Earth, Pope Francis reminds us, is immeasurably more than “found materials.” She is our Sister, our Mother, in whom all living things are nurtured and sustained.
As Christians, we are also called to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.
Meantime, in my own backyard, spring has come at last to the Ohio valley. No wonder my spirit “groans in travail”! For too many months I have slumbered behind closed doors, days and nights illumined by the dull light of a computer screen. The sun calls. The trees beckon. The earthen trail awaits.
Spring has come, coaxing seeds to life, sap through the bark, blood through the veins. It is our task, our joy, our grace, to welcome her!
(One more stack of papers, just one more, and I’m outta here. Anybody like to join me?)