Seeing the Person of the Year through a Copacabana Lens

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Time magazine has named Pope Francis Person of the Year. How did that come to be? Who is he? What does it all mean?

As NRO readers know, I’ve been exploring those questions in pieces and interviews throughout the better part of a year now. We have so much from him. You’ve heard of the “The Gospel of Joy,” by now, no doubt! It’s worth actually reading — skip the press clips on one section of it.

There is a pastoral richness there, as with so much of Pope Francis’s words and deeds — images of encounters with the people who come to him, who he reaches out to.

There is that tremendous, historic work of four hands — the encyclical he wrote with Pope Benedict on the “Light of Faith.” And there was Rio. It’s important not to forget Rio.

The media were most interested in his comments to the press on the way back, but the first pope from the Americas went to Rio — this was his first trip back to the continent of his birth since being elected pope in March – and Christ was seen and heard on Copacabana beach! Rio may have been the pope at his counter-cultural best, challenging people to the kind of radical surrender to God that the Gospel calls for and, yes, on family and life, as political and service matters, as well. There he previewed The Gospel of Joy, going back to the site of the Marian shrine of Aparacedia, where he led the creation of a pastoral vision that his exhortation of November has many elements of.

A young volunteer with Catholic Voices USA, Daniela Adames, participated in the pilgrimage as well as in a social-media event with English- and Spanish-speaking youth there. Catholic Voices USA is an apostolic project that helps Catholics better articulate their faith in the public square that I helped found here, based on a British model. Adames, who works for the Catholic Church in New York in pro-life and youth ministry, recently talked with me about Pope Francis, this unmistakable man of the year, Rio, and the role of Catholicism in her life.

KJL: Reflecting on your time in Rio this summer, what did you take away from the controversy surrounding Pope Francis, which really began in earnest around the publication of his first big interview?

Adames: It is very clear that Pope Francis wants to go back to the basics, back to the heart of our faith — Jesus. While at World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio, Pope Francis didn’t talk much about “hot-button” issues, and was later questioned for it. But what he is doing is a very important and necessary thing: He’s focusing on speaking of the love of God, because quite frankly, without that, there is no reason to be faithful. He understands that he needs to lead us — Catholics and the whole world — in building what he calls a “culture of encounter.” And this encounter is with a person, Jesus, not with a mere set of rules or a type of moralism, but the person of Christ. One thing the pope mentioned during his homily at the WYD Mass, was that when Jesus sends us to proclaim the Gospel, He Himself goes before us to guide us. I think he’s reminding us that in following our faith and the teachings of the Church, we are following Christ Himself.

KJL: What was most unforgettable for you, as a pilgrim, about World Youth Day in Rio?

Adames: One of the most unforgettable moments for me was when all the pilgrims prayed the rosary at the opening Mass. It felt like Pentecost. We were all speaking in our own tongue, yet we knew what others were saying, or rather, praying. At that moment I truly felt the universality of the Church, the oneness of the Church, and the tender affection of our mother Mary. There was one point where there was complete silence. It was perfectly peaceful; all you could hear were the waves at Copacabana beach. You’d think that’d be impossible in a crowd of 3,000,000. The same sense of unity was present during Communion at all the Masses. Common-union with God and with the entire Church! Even now, when I attend Mass and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, I think of the millions of my brothers and sisters who are united with me in this Sacrament.

KJL: What was the point of World Youth Day, beyond a summer getaway?

Adames: These World Youth Days the Church has held since John Paul II are most certainly not summer vacations. It is exhausting. It is crowded. It is uncomfortable. But it is also the most beautiful way to experience the magnitude of the Church and the power of faith. Our entire lives are pilgrimages, really, so, WYD gives us a glimpse of what the whole of our lives are about. There will be moments of suffering in our lives, but then there’s the joy of having Christ, and having each other. At one point — actually one of several times — during WYD I got separated from my group and had no idea how to get back to them. I was lost in a crowd of 3,000,000, the train system was shut down for the night, and I knew I was at least five miles from where I was lodging. I met a man named Jean-Marie from Uganda in the crowd and we started to talk about faith, and a chastity group he had started back home. He asked me to record a video for his youth group, promoting chastity because “they’ll do whatever Americans are doing!” He then helped me find my way to a bus that would take me to where I was staying. During the bus ride, I thought to myself, “God will never leave me stranded, He has always, and will always send someone to my aid.” And this has been the story of my life — God placing the right people, at the right time to help me find my way home. Just like Pope Francis came from “the ends of the earth,” Jean-Marie did as well!

KJL: So does that have everyday implications? 

Adames: Yes it does! It was very humbling. I had to admit to myself that I don’t have it all figured out and that I need others. It’s a daily reminder of my own weakness, but it also gives me the confidence to know that God will provide for me, someway, somehow. By the same token, it reminds me that God is also relying on me to help others in any way I can – to be more generous with my time, talents, and treasures. That’s one word that Pope Francis mentioned often during his time at Rio: Generosity. “Don’t be afraid to be generous with Christ.”

Pope Francis in a drug-treatment hospital named after St. Francis of Assisi in Rio this August.

KJL: Did Rio change you?

Adames: It certainly did. I knew I would not come back the same person as when I left. First, the word “catholic” (universal) took a whole new meaning! I knew in my head that the Church was universal, but for the first time, I saw that the Church was universal. Being Catholic is the most rewarding thing in the world, but it can be very hard these days, and I’ve experienced great discouragement in the past. But now, when I say “I am Catholic,” I see the faces of the millions of people – of brothers and sisters who are “backing me up”! And to think that that was only a small portion!

KJL: This pope is often giving three messages in his homilies. What are the three messages you took away from Rio?

Adames: 1) Go

2) Without fear

3) To serve

Pope Francis emphasized that “the life of Jesus is a life for others. It is a life of service.” And we must go out! He spoke of this in one of his first homilies as pope — the Church has to go out. The Church is a missionary Church. This doesn’t mean we all have to leave our homes and go evangelize in a Third World country. The human heart is also mission territory and we are all called to evangelize there, in the hearts of our neighbors.

KJL: What does Pope Francis teach you about sharing your faith in the public square, that is, outside of the walls of church on Sunday?

Adames: First thing: “Don’t throw rules at people”! It is truly a gift to understand the teachings of Jesus, of the Church, and to follow them because of love for Christ. We sometimes take this for granted. People have to have the love for Christ first. Jesus, who is God, is perfect beauty, perfect goodness, and perfect truth. People don’t always respond to truth anymore. I mean, look at the way the media has been manipulating the words of the Holy Father, twisting them to conform them to their own ideas. We live in a relativist society, where people tend to create their own truths. But goodness and beauty still appeal to the human heart, especially beauty. And I think Pope Francis is using precisely that avenue – encouraging Christians to promote the beauty of God, of his Church, of the faith. The beauty will attract people to the faith and goodness and truth will follow. 

KJL: What is this theology of women business the pope keeps talking about? How is it that you are happy as a woman in the Catholic Church? The conventional understanding is that you’re oppressed. And yet you seem happy about it! What’s that about?

Adames: When he speaks of a “theology of women,” Pope Francis is referring to a teaching or understanding of the nature, dignity, and role of women. He feels as though the Church needs to do a better job at speaking of the inherent value of women, especially their role in the Church. He’s not going to give a “new” teaching or anything of the sort, but rather promote the truth that is already there. Women do have a role in the Church, in the world, and a very important one. And this role does not include striving to be like men. Men and women are equal, but we’re not the same. Equality isn’t sameness. There’s a common misconception that the role of a woman in the Church specifically is limited to praying the rosary in the back of the Church. And this is not right (although it doesn’t hurt to pray the rosary!). The reason why I am happy in the Church is because she allows me to be who I am. I am free to serve others with my gifts and talents, as a woman. In fact, I currently hold a leadership position within the Church where I am able to assist priests and other leaders in their pastoral ministry. Like I mentioned before, however, our Christian faith is about a relationship with Christ. It’s about a person — and my joy and happiness comes from this relationship, this intimacy with Jesus, not necessarily from the “position” I hold in the Church.

KJL: Do you wish bishops would stop talking about religious freedom and other hot-button issues? What do you wish everyone would hear them teaching beyond, say abortion and homosexuality? And what is it underlying some of those so-called culture-wars issues that you wish people could hear?

Adames: Absolutely not! These hot-button issues, and the threat to religious liberty in particular, are things that need to be spoken about. Unfortunately, government is trying to limit the role that faith plays in individuals’ lives to a mere “right to worship.” But as Cardinal Dolan says, “Yes, our faith is personal, but it is hardly private.” Faith, and the Christian faith specifically cannot be something practiced in secret. It actually has to inform our thoughts and actions if it is authentic. So, it is crucial that out bishops continue to encourage us to resist the temptation to give in to the pressure to live our lives of faith in secret. The same is true for the hot-button issues. Society often pressures us to accept or be silent in the face of wrongdoing, and we need our bishops to continue to stand up courageously for what is right. Always keeping in mind however, the pope’s words about going out, leading with mercy and welcoming everyone to see the beauty of the faith, of a relationship with Christ. We have to always uphold the dignity of the person even if (and especially when) the particular actions or lifestyles in themselves aren’t good or natural.

All of these issues, whether it be abortion, or homosexual marriage, stem from and result in a breakdown of the family. The family is suffering. Fatherlessness is increasing. The concepts of chastity and modesty are lost in a contemporary society obsessed with and confused about sex. But at the very root of things, there is desire for happiness, for fulfillment, for love, for truth. And all this has a name: Jesus Christ.

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