Philadelphia, Pa., Aug 24, 2015 / 15:27 pm
In his nearly two-and-a-half year papacy, Pope Francis has spoken countless times about bringing the hope of Christ to society's most wounded and forgotten. With a life-sized cut-out of the Pope, and a combination of social media and street evangelization, one small initiative is doing just that.
The website for PopUpPope features hundreds of photos of people posing with cardboard cut-outs of Pope Francis. However, for co-founder Christa Scalies, the initiative is more than giving people the chance to take a "selfie" with the pontiff. It's all about the encounter.
"We have sort of the curiosity-seekers," said Philadelphia-native Scalies in an interview with CNA, "the tourists, the people who love Pope Francis, and other people that will just be drawn in."
"If we could utilize a cardboard image of the Pope, on the street, to engage people in conversation, if they're interested in coming, getting a photo, talking with us, and it gives them a happy moment," she said, it "engages them in some sort of conversation."
The most meaningful interactions are with the suffering: the homeless, the drug-addicted, and those suffering from mental health issues, she said. Co-founder Paul Tanner, a catechist, wheelchair bound, and formerly homeless himself, is able to direct the poor and homeless they meet to resources they might need.
"For me, those are the best encounters," Scalies said, because these are the people who may be hopeless.
"They might not believe in God. "They might not have any faith. But, (it is having) an encounter with another human being that says: I see you, I recognize you."
"We ask them their name," she said.
PopUpPope was inspired partly by Pope Francis' upcoming trip to the U.S. September 22-27, which will culminate in his visit to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
The idea further materialized when Scalies and Tanner, who are both currently based in Wilmington, Delaware, found images of people in the Philippines posing with cardboard cut-outs of Pope Francis, posted around the time of his pastoral visit to the Asian nation.
"Our concept is that we want to be able to engage with people right there, on the spot, and have a conversation with them, pray with them," Scalies explained, adding that they will sometimes quote from the Bible and other inspirational sayings.
"Our intention isn't to proselytize and take out a Bible and say, 'You have to believe this!' It's about connecting, and love, and mercy. That's really what it's about for us."
Going out as a team into the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, they are prepared if the conversation goes in the direction of faith, she said. "Paul is a catechist, and can engage in those conversations."
"On the other hand we thought, if it gives us the opportunity of something that's new, to engage somebody that might not normally be drawn to a cardboard image of a Pope, it gives us a chance to engage them in conversation, and give us an opportunity to offer them some personal hope."
Unlike other initiatives which set up "selfie stations" for people looking to take their photo with the cardboard Pope facsimile, Scalies and Tanner go out to the streets with the Pope Francis cut-out, and use people's reactions as an opportunity to interact with them.
Scalies recalled one instance of a man named Joseph who approached them during one day of street evangelization. "We talked to him. He looked over to me and said: 'Can I have a hug?'"
In another instance, a woman came up to the PopUpPope team, mesmerized by the image of Pope Francis, Scalies said.
"She started to engage us in conversation, and was explaining to us – even though she wasn't Catholic – how much she loves the Pope, and admires the Pope, and how touched she was."
While taking a photo with the cardboard Pope, "she just stood up and looked at him," she said. "You could tell there was something spiritual happening for her at that moment."
Scalies attributes these encounters, not to herself, but to the image of Pope Francis. "It was because we were out on the street engaging people, and opened ourselves up to having that encounter with people on the street."
"That's what the Pope has asked us to do," she said: "To literally take it to the street."
This enthusiasm surrounding Pope Francis served, in part, as the inspiration behind the name, PopUpPope. "Because it's cardboard, it literally folds on itself, and then pops into place," she said.
"The other part of that logic was, when the Pope 'pops up' somewhere in the world, people get excited."