Faith Matters

A special experience to reinvigorate even indifferent hearts

With Pope Francis's presence eagerly anticipated, next month's World Meeting of Families has the potential to awaken - and reawaken - the Irish people to the joy of God's love, says Jake Magill

Jake Magill

Pope Francis has urged the shepherds of the Gospel to take on the "smell of the sheep"

THE World Meeting of Families to be celebrated in the Archdiocese of Dublin next month promises to bring a frenzy of enthusiasm to its streets.

Families from many nations across the world have enrolled in an event which aims to nourish faith and celebrate all that is good in family life.

On these same streets, however, the indifferent soul saunters, a victim of the secular times in which we live, and for whom this World Meeting of Families could pass by like any other event which frequents a European city, be it a concert or a football match.

The young people whom I teach are natives of these secular suburbs with many able 'to be' or to pass through life with little or no awareness of or appeal to the God in whom "we live, move and have our being", as Acts 17:28 records St Paul's words in the Areopagus.

Will this be an event among others? Or will the WMOF catch the hearts of some of those lapsed Catholics and millennial 'nones' off guard?

I believe the decision of Pope Francis, a pastor who boldly incarnates the Gospel, to come to Ireland transforms the potential impact this World Meeting of Families will have.

The question is: Why does this man have such impetus? Of course, he is Pope but it's about more than that.

On his historic state visit to Britain in 2010, Francis's predecessor Benedict XVI warned of an "aggressive secularism" gripping Western Europe.

Ireland hasn't escaped, with society, culture and politics no longer much agitated by God or faith.

The discussion around the Eighth Amendment in the Republic was testament to this.

Will the World Meeting of Families be an event among others? Or will it catch the hearts of some of those lapsed Catholics and millennial 'nones' off guard?

Indeed, the need to counter the rise of secularism was a staple ingredient of Benedict XVI's theological programme.

Surely Pope Francis had to maintain this militant approach to arguably the greatest threat to the life of the Church in our time, in which the Church has been and continues to be - in Ireland and in other parts of the world - pushed forcibly to the margins.

However, Pope Francis claims that it is precisely on the margins, in the 'peripheries', where the Church ought to be.

After all, she is the bride of a Saviour born not in the centre but in a faraway outpost of the Roman Empire.

This is where he claims the Gospel is most acutely needed, as he said in Evangelii Gaudium, his apostolic exhortation on "the Church's primary mission of evangelisation in the modern world".

A Church on the margins resembles the "poor Church for the poor" envisaged by the Pontiff shortly after his election. This is where the shepherds of the Gospel will take on the "smell of the sheep", in that memorable phrase from Evangelii Gaudium.

As in the case of Christ, the outskirts eventually becomes the centre.

We have heard the Gospel proclaim that Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts of His day.

And we have seen pictures of Francis celebrating his 80th birthday with the homeless, the outcasts of our day.

We are told by the Evangelist Matthew (10:1-4) that Jesus called 12 disciples and we have seen the Holy Father similarly inviting 12 refugees to return with him from Lesbos to the Vatican in 2016.

The Pope's vision is for a Church that recognises the woundedness of our human nature and life and has an unwavering commitment to ministering the mercy of God manifest in Christ

"Let the little children come to me" (Matthew 19:14) were words uttered by Jesus to his disciples which were enfleshed by Pope Francis as he held the hand of a young girl with Down's Syndrome during a ceremony in October 2017 which was recorded in a video that later went viral.

In these few examples, we are reminded that the Gospel is alive in and through him.

The great coalescing of hearing, listening to and living the Gospel and fusion of faith into life comes to the fore in the Argentinian.

We encounter the Risen Lord when we hear and see the Gospel in our midst. Without question, Pope Francis has been enriched by and, in turn, seeks to enrich the lives of others through this encounter.

His clarity of authentic proclamation and pertinent mingling of word and deed have the power to sharply reconfigure the workings of the most indifferent of hearts.

The indifferent heart is awakened by its recognition of the Gospel alive in Pope Francis.

However, the Pope has discerned that mercy is the medicine needed to ensure this change in the operation of the heart is sustained in our post-modern times. In other words, mercy is the stent that keeps the blood flowing and the heart functioning.

It is unsurprising that Pope Francis, whose priestly vocation had its genesis in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, has sought to ensure that people are met by a merciful Church.

Pope Francis's clarity of authentic proclamation and pertinent mingling of word and deed have the power to sharply reconfigure the workings of the most indifferent of hearts

The Pope's vision is for a Church that recognises the woundedness of our human nature and life and has an unwavering commitment to ministering the mercy of God manifest in Christ.

He is aware that the indifferent heart can be torn open and won over by the living Gospel. People will then be drawn into the Church by the joy of God's love.

To remain here they must discover that God's merciful heart is open to them - that it is here, they are at home.

It is at this point that the indifferent heart is (re)invigorated; it has been convinced of the authentic joy of the Gospel; it has been wrapped tenderly in mercy by a God who "never tires of forgiving us", as proclaimed by the Pontiff at his first Angelus.

It is now enthused to go forth moved by the transformative encounter. It is now on the journey towards "seeing and acting with mercy" which is at the heart of holiness, as Francis wrote in Gaudate et Exsultate, his apostolic exhortation from earlier this year.

Young people whom I teach are impressed by the contribution made by the Pope to the life of the Church thus far and are excited by what the future holds.

Without exception, a mention of Francis brings an affirmative smile to these same young people.

I believe that these smiles are illustrations that they have been somehow touched by the joy of God's love which he proclaims with radical simplicity; they are able to "rejoice and be glad" (Matthew 5:12).

I trust that those who gather for the World Meeting of Families and those who initially desired to miss it will experience something special, even extraordinary.

Hopefully, their faces will be etched with smiles and their indifferent hearts (re)invigorated by a pastor who truly enfleshes the joy of God's love "for all to see" (Matthew 5:15).

It has been said, by Patrick Hannon in The Long Yearning's End, that in our secular culture "we are walking in a downpour of the incarnation and nobody's getting wet".

This downpour is particularly visible, however, in the life of our Pope. Let's hope there isn't an umbrella in sight on the streets of our capital city in August - especially if this means we are dancing in the rain.

  • Jake Magill is a post-primary school teacher from Poyntzpass, Co Armagh. He graduated from St Mary's University College, Belfast, as a Religious Education specialist in 2016.
  • This article was first published in the latest edition of Le Chéile: A Catholic School Ethos Journal. The journal is a publication of St Mary's University College in Belfast and aims to celebrate and promote the vision of Catholic education locally. It is edited by Rev Dr Niall Coll.

Le Chéile: A Catholic School Ethos Journal

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