There are many lessons that Pope Francis teaches us, but on this 5th anniversary of his pontificate, I want to focus on how he shows us, by his example, how to create a culture of encounter that can open up for us the grace and power of personal presence.
Transformative encounter is, of course, at the heart of Jesus’s ministry. Over and over, we see Jesus sharing the love of God in substantive, life-changing moments with others: a man suffering from leprosy in Mark 1; the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5; the woman with the bent back in Luke 13. These encounters provide substantive physical healing, but they also communicate graces of emotional, psychological, and social restoration, as the circle of the human community is expanded and those at the margins of society are welcomed into their rightful place.
From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has modeled this instinct (which is both godly and deeply, preciously human) to welcome, to embrace, to restore, and to uplift. He shows us constantly that, as members of a common human family, we are “in this together”—from the simple act of asking the faithful to bless him before bestowing his first papal blessing five years ago to his first papal visit to Lampedusa both to extend his concern and to make the world more aware of the plight of migrants and refugees. Each of his formal visits contains some visit to prisons, hospitals, and places of keen need, even despair—and often these encounters, like those of Jesus, happen spontaneously, as needs present themselves.
Stopping at a regional hub for immigrants and refugees during his trip to Bologna on October 1, 2017, he spoke powerfully to the refugees who surrounded him, as well as to the rest of the world, asking us all to open our eyes to truly see one another.
“You only see correctly with closeness and mercy. Without it, the other remains a stranger, even an enemy, and can’t become my neighbor. Only with mercy can we understand the suffering of others, their problems. If we don’t see others with mercy, then we run the risk that God won’t look at us with mercy. I’m here with you because I want to carry your eyes in mine, your hearts in mine.”
“I want to carry your eyes in mine, your hearts in mine.” We are called to do that, to want that kind of connection with one another; with such radical simplicity Pope Francis teaches us how to live “the mystery of living together, of being a people.” (Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 87)
In a world of chaos and strife we need this graceful reminder that our personal presence to one another can make a critical difference. What better way to explore this reality than to know one another’s stories, dreams, struggles, hopes and suffering; to learn from them; to respond to the demands of one another’s miseries and to bear them in common as we journey together? Here “accompaniment”—choosing toward, learning from, and walking with one another—become a single act, a natural expression of our desire to express our common humanity. Thank you, papa Francesco, for teaching us this!