Preaching the Gospel through Pope Francis' Ministry


This posting from the issue of Liturgy dealing with “Pastoral Liturgy and Pope Francis,” guest-edited by Katharine Harmon, looks at Pope Francis’ approach to his ministry as a preacher.

Governing Pope Francis’ entire ministry, not least his preaching, is the call to accompany the poor as he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”): “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.” [¶20] 

The call to the peripheries is a call to see others not as the world may see them but as God intends them to be seen. The following poem [Brian Bilston (an alias), “Refugee”] exemplifies this reversal in perception by inviting the reader to read not only from the top down, but from bottom up.

They have no need of our help

So do not tell me

These haggard faces could belong to you or me

Should life have dealt a different hand

We need to see them for who they really are

Chancers and scroungers

Layabouts and loungers

With bombs up their sleeves

Cut-throats and thieves

They are not

Welcome here

We should make them

Go back to where they came from

They cannot

Share our food

Share our homes

Share our countries

Instead let us

Build a wall to keep them out

It is not okay to say

These are people just like us

A place should only belong to those who are born there

Do not be so stupid to think that

The world can be looked at another way 

(now read from bottom to top) 

Christians, like Saint Francis and Pope Francis, have been and now are invited by virtue of discipleship to have friends in low places, and the poetry of their lived Gospel in our top-down world reads from the bottom up. . .  

For example, two weeks into his papacy, Francis celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday at the Prison for Minors Casal del Marmo in Rome. Each year at this first of the Easter Triduum liturgies, the Gospel reading is first proclaimed and then enacted in a foot-washing ceremony.

In 2013, Francis performed this liturgical action from the bottom up—moving it from Saint Peter’s Basilica to a youth prison and washing the feet of teenagers (some in shorts and with tattoos), notably washing the feet of girls as well as boys and, most notably, washing the feet of a Muslim teenage girl.

. . . Francis has performed this liturgical action at drug rehabilitation centers, prisons, and refugee camps. Can we wager that, as Francis ministers individually at the feet of Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, and to teenagers, migrants, and the imprisoned, that the face of Christ is mirrored in a mutually transformative encounter of the pope and of those whose feet are being washed? . . .

After the washing of feet at Casal del Marmo, the pope began his characteristically short homily by saying:

This is moving. Jesus, washing the feet of his disciples. Peter didn’t understand it at all, he refused. But Jesus explained it for him. Jesus—God—did this! He himself explains to his disciples: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . (John 13:12–15).

The Gospel of God in Christ is proclaimed in word and sacramental action at the very center of the lives of the poor.

Heille’s full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 2 available by personal subscription and through many libraries. For more, see Gregory Heille, O.P., The Preaching of Pope Francis: Missionary Discipleship and the Ministry of the Word (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015). 

Gregory Heille, O.P., “Pope Francis: Preacher,” Liturgy 33, no. 2 (2018): 3-10.

David Turnbloom