In early July, I represented the Diocese of Phoenix and Catholic Charities Community Services at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” in Orlando, Florida. A gathering of leaders like this is rare: the last time such a convocation occurred was 100 years ago during World War I!
As I write this reflection, I’m sitting in a restaurant a couple blocks from my parish. I saw a patron heading toward the door when a gentleman came in from off the street, approached him and asked for food. Without hesitation, the suburban dad turned around and headed straight back to the counter to order a meal for this person he didn’t know. It was a beautiful sight! Witnessing this simple but meaningful act of charity, I felt inspired to go make a new friend, “J.R.,” who is about my age, and who is a person in our community experiencing homelessness.
We’re tremendously blessed to have here in our diocese organizations like Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul which work to affirm the God-given dignity and meet the basic human needs of thousands of individuals like J.R.
But in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium — the central focus of the convocation — Pope Francis insists such care and concern for the vulnerable is not just for organized charities, but is the personal responsibility of each baptized Christian. Francis calls it “missionary discipleship,” adding that “every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus” (EG 120). It demands “drawing nearer to others,” including “to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ” (EG 272, 210).
So where and how do we “encounter the love of Jesus?” Francis reminds us that the Lord is specifically waiting for us outside of “our own comfort zones,” out on the “peripheries” (EG 20).
We might immediately think in terms of geography or socio-economics, referring to the poor in developing countries or to the vulnerable living on the margins of our society, like J.R.
But it’s bigger than that. Francis charges us to go to the “existential” peripheries as well — places where people may be materially well-off yet miserable, suffering from deep spiritual poverty and unaware of any greater sense of purpose or meaning in their otherwise comfortable lives. Think of the isolation brought on by technology and globalization and modern attitudes against God and religion. Now think of our own homes and families, our neighbors, our colleagues at work.
To reach all these peripheries, Francis challenges us “to cultivate an interior space which can give Christian meaning to commitment and activity” so that our work does not “become meaningless” (EG 262).
A key convocation theme is that before we “go out,” we must first “look in”:
- Where might the Lord be calling me to conversion?
- What areas in my own heart are wounded and in need of Christ’s healing?
- What attitudes or biases do I hold that prevent me from seeing the suffering Christ in others?
I am blessed to serve in the Church, but I’m a Christian first. My challenge, like yours and all baptized persons, is to join the Church in what Francis calls a “permanent state of mission” and to “advance along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things the way they presently are” (EG 25).
At the convocation, Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, put it like this: “Jesus is already there at the peripheries. The perennial question is: will we, His disciples, join Him there?”