London wasn’t the only home to an international story of new life Monday: Pope Francis landed on the continent of his birth for the first time since he left for Rome for the conclave which elected him pontiff.
It was overcast as he arrived, and a friend has appropriately dubbed him “Hurricane Francis.”
As he drove around Rio, the windows of his silver Fiat wide open, rarely moving beyond a crawl, friendly, enthusiastic mobs approached the car to shake his hand, to take a picture, to catch a glimpse of the successor of Peter.
To the extent that his arrival made news here at home, the headline was an explosive device found and dismantled at the shrine where he is headed to tomorrow. But the bigger story is one of victory and hope.
On the plane ride from Rome on an Alitalia charter, Pope Francis talked about the need to liberate young people from their isolation. It’s the great irony of our day that, even as we’re as connected as ever, we’re incredibly isolated.
This apostolic journey is centered around young people, for the 2013 Pope Benedict XVI–planned World Youth Day. The Church needs to reach out to them, Francis said, “not in isolation but rather within the larger fabric of society. When we isolate them, we do them an injustice because young people already belong in several ways . . . they belong to a family, a country, a culture and a faith. We must not isolate them, and above all, we shouldn’t isolate them within the whole of the society.”
“Young people today are in crisis,” he said, “and we are used to this disposable culture: It happens all too often to the elderly.” But young people, too, are getting caught up in this disposable culture, he said. We need a culture of encounters.
He talked about the danger of a generation of young people without jobs, which doesn’t help men know their inherent dignity.
Encounter has been a theme of both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
I was present in Rome when Pope Benedict addressed Catholic leaders from the Americas last December, around the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Encounter with the living Christ, he said, “gives rise to attitudes and ways of acting based on love and truth. This is the decisive force which will transform the American continent.” He continued:
The love of Christ impels us to devote ourselves without reserve to proclaiming his Name throughout America, bringing it freely and enthusiastically to the hearts of all its inhabitants. There is no more rewarding or beneficial work than this. There is no greater service that we can provide to our brothers and sisters. They are thirsting for God. For this reason, we ought to take up this commitment with conviction and joyful dedication, encouraging priests, deacons, consecrated men and women and pastoral agents to purify and strengthen their interior lives ever more fully through a sincere relationship with the Lord and a worthy and frequent reception of the sacraments.
That encounter with the core of life, that which uplifts and redeems and gives strength, is why young people chased the pope’s car and will sleep on the ground to pray with him later in the week.
World Youth Day gatherings have been a great source of vocational inspiration and missionary zeal. (Countless stories of vocations for priests and nuns, and matching-making, happening at previous WYDs can be chronicled.) Hundreds of thousands – the final number is unclear – gather for the public witness and for nourishment. Bishops from throughout the Americas join the pontiff to teach, with catechetical sessions planned in the run-up to the weekend.
In his remarks in December, Benedict hit on this too, talking about how a faithful Catholic life is also “encouraged by suitable catechesis and a correct and ongoing doctrinal formation marked by complete fidelity to the word of God and the Church’s magisterium and aimed at offering a response to the deepest questions and aspirations of the human heart.”
“The witness of your faith,” he said, “will thus be more eloquent and incisive, and you will grow in unity in the fulfillment of your apostolate. A renewed missionary spirit and zealous generosity in your commitment will be an irreplaceable contribution to what the universal Church expects and needs from the Church in America.”
In his opening remarks in Rio on Monday, Pope Francis said: “I am here to meet young people coming from all over the world, drawn to the open arms of Christ the Redeemer. They want to find a refuge in his embrace, close to his heart, to listen again to his clear and powerful appeal: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’”
That passage from Matthew is the theme of this World Youth Day at a time when the growing popularity of Pentecostals and Evangelicals has nudged Catholics into a reminder of this Gospel mandate.
During the same month in which he released a letter to the Church on “The Light of Faith,” written largely by the pope emeritus, Pope Francis offered an opening explanation for the scene of young people running up to a Holy Father’s car, why they’re gathering in Rio to pray and drink from Word and Sacrament, in a snapshot of Evangelical Catholicism in progress. “Christ has confidence in young people and entrusts them with the very future of his mission,” he said.
He explained: “Christ offers them space, knowing that there is no force more powerful than the one released from the hearts of young people when they have been conquered by the experience of friendship with him. . . . Go beyond the confines of what is humanly possible and create a world of brothers and sisters! And young people have confidence in Christ: they are not afraid to risk for him the only life they have, because they know they will not be disappointed.”
At a time when a little cult of personality seems to have developed around Pope Francis (Did you see him on the cover of the Italian Vanity Fair?), often casting him as a contrast to his predecessor, Francis continues to focus on the continuity — the encounter with Christ in His Church. It’s home to, indeed, a confidence the world cannot provide. One the world is ever more thirsting for. The world may watch these next few days and ask, what is that sea of yellow WYD T-shirts? It’s hope.
And it’s a hope very much engaged in the world, but driven by the certainty of an eternal home, of divine mercy and a love that embraces each living being, not just royal babies. Wrapping up his remarks at the official welcome ceremony Monday, Pope Francis said:
Young people are the window through which the future enters the world, thus presenting us with great challenges. Our generation will show that it can realize the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space; how to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; how to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; how to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be; how to pass on to them lasting values that make life worth living; how to give them a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good; how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone.
It’s notable that, before leaving Rome, Pope Francis spent time with the pope emeritus and visited St. Mary Major, the same church he went to the morning after he was elected pope. We do nothing in isolation. This first apostolic journey for Pope Francis is about Catholics being who they are called to be in the world, for real; with an open door to everyone, so that they might see the promise of something better, more than our hearts could ever desire, the light of faith.