Pope Francis’ message of service and encounter is a model for the faithful and for society at large, said panelists at a recent conference on the Holy Father.
Pope Francis is “calling Catholics to move past this liberal-conservative divide that has too often pitted us against each other and too often prevented us from working together for the common good,” said Kim Daniels, spokesperson for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.
“He’s confidently engaging the world, and he’s calling us to do the same.”
The Oct. 1 event, entitled “The Francis Factor,” was held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as the opening event of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. The new program is headed by John Carr, former executive director of the U.S. bishops' department of justice and peace, who moderated the panel.
Carr underscored the need to “share the substance of Catholic social thought more fully,” encouraging a future generation of Catholic leaders to see their faith as “a call to participate in public life.”
The leadership of Pope Francis provides “tremendous momentum” for this venture, he said.
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., gave the introduction to the event, asking if the Pope’s “model of civility and service” is not something “that a polarized and paralyzed Washington could learn from.”
The cardinal called the Holy Father a model of “the new evangelization in action,” noting that the Pope presents the same truth that the Church has taught for years; however, by “what he says and how he says it, Pope Francis is offering us a whole new way of seeing these ancient teachings.”
Mark Shields, a commentator for PBS, emphasized that the Pope “doesn't talk about loving humankind in the abstract,” but instead emphasizes action in everyday life.
“I think his authenticity can be felt; there’s nothing contrived about him.”
Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and employee in the Obama administration, echoed Shield’s statements, saying that Pope Francis doesn’t just show the Catholic faith “in an intellectual sense or an academic sense, but he's living it very symbolically.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks, the panel’s only non-Catholic, said that from the outside, it seems that Pope Francis is “offering a comprehensive counterculture” and “just looks like a Christian.”
He wondered, however, if those who do not understand the Church might mistake the Pope’s humble style and emphasis as appearing to “slide into mushiness,” without someone to adequately explain Catholic teaching.
Brooks stressed that the “Church is not only a feel-good institution about a humble guy,” warning that if “you lose contact with the doctrine and the stuff that actually makes outsiders uncomfortable with a charming guy that washes people’s feet, then you’re losing something elemental to the Church.”
Daniels responded, saying that the Pope’s modesty is, in fact, a gift to the Church.
“What it will do is that it will call everyday Catholics back into the pews and call them to live out their faith on the ground level,” she said.
She emphasized that what “the Pope is calling us to is … to witness to our faith in all its fullness and to serve the voiceless and the vulnerable wherever we find them.”
What Pope Francis offers Catholics and society, she said, is “a renewed sense of the challenge and the adventure of our faith.”
His symbolism and action call us “not to be part-time Christians but to live out our faith every day,” and are “just a wonderful example of living the Gospel.”