by Kate Ristow
From the first days of his papacy, we learned that our newly elected Holy Father, Pope Francis, was a man of action, not just words. We knew this because of some of the choices he made. He wore plain black shoes instead of the red shoes favored by his predecessor. On the day after his election, he shared a minibus with the cardinals who had elected him instead of riding in a chauffeur-driven Vatican limousine.
Rather than moving into the plush papal apartment in the Vatican, the Pope chose to live in a simple suite in the Vatican guesthouse, Domus Sanctae Marthae, which is used as a residence for cardinals during conclaves. When the permanent residents of the house returned, they were delighted to join Pope Francis to celebrate Mass together and to share meals with him in the communal dining room.
The Pope travels more modestly than any modern pope. He uses a blue Ford Focus to get around Rome. Whenever possible, he prefers to drive himself, but he recognizes the need for security—if only to prevent a stampede of people eager to touch and be blessed by the popular Holy Father. For trips outside the Vatican, the pope requests that only compact-size, locally made vehicles be used as his official transportation.
A Life of Humility and Mercy
Living simply and modestly is not new to Pope Francis. After being ordained a Jesuit priest in 1969, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio became a professor of theology and later was named superior of the Jesuit community in Argentina. He was made bishop in 1992, Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1997, and cardinal in 2001.
He chose Miserando atque eligendo as his episcopal motto, which means, “lowly, but chosen.” It refers to a homily about Jesus’ call of Matthew, given by the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century monk. The homily focuses on Jesus’ divine mercy. It is said that the Pope first felt touched by God’s mercy as a youth when he first heard the call to share in Jesus’ saving mission as a priest. Sharing the mercy of Christ with others has been a driving force in the pope’s life ever since.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio lived in a small apartment rather than the bishop’s official residence. He cooked his own meals and rode the bus to work, which gave him the opportunity to meet people going about their everyday lives. The cardinal developed a reputation for his commitment to social justice. He increased the Church’s presence in the slums of Buenos Aires, doubling the number of priests assigned to minister to the poor. He led pro-life efforts that affirmed the sanctity of life.
He changed the way Church money was invested because he believed former policies led to waste and unnecessary spending. Under Bergoglio’s leadership, the Church became more fiscally responsible, recovered from near-bankruptcy, and was able to spend money on the true needs of the Church and her people.
When a new president was elected in Argentina, the cardinal publically called for citizens to have the right to peacefully protest conditions in the country, without fear of arrest. On Holy Thursday, just as he would do during his first two years as pope, the cardinal went to jails, hospitals, slums, or retirement homes to wash the feet of the people Jesus called the Church to serve. His habit of embracing and blessing sick and disabled people, as he did in Buenos Aires, continues today, but on a much larger and more public stage.
People in need are always seated in the front rows at papal audiences. When he is driven around St. Peter’s Square to bless the crowd, his vehicle makes frequent stops so that he can reach out to embrace and bless those who are sick.
Show Me the Money: Help students recognize that Pope Francis targets poverty as the source of many of the world’s problems. Point out that sociologists and population experts tell us that nearly one out of every six people in our country lives in—or near—the poverty level. Work with junior high students to create a list of reasons why poverty is so prevalent. The list might include poor educational opportunities, racism, single-parent families, and the unequal distribution of jobs and income. Briefly discuss how these conditions contribute to poverty in the United States. Don’t belabor the point, but help everyone become more aware that poverty is not just an isolated situation with one cause. It is a systematic problem that we must address as individuals, as a Church and as a nation.
Food, Glorious Food: Invite students to brainstorm ways they might serve the poor. For example, parish families could share a bread-and-soup meal at home one night a week and donate what would ordinarily be spent on a family dinner to a parish or community agency. They could organize a monthly bread-baking day throughout the parish to prepare loaves to serve at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. The children might “tithe” a portion of their weekly allowance to groups that serve the poor—collect the money monthly and send a check to organization(s) the youngsters select. If you choose this option, make it more tangible to students by using shelf paper, hung vertically, on which you have drawn a thermometer marked with donation goals ($500, $750, $1,000, and so forth). As money comes in, fill in the thermometer to reflect the children’s success.
Choosing to Care: Have junior high students, working together in small groups, use laptops or tablets to research local and national ministries and organizations that are dedicated to alleviating poverty. Allow time for each group to report its findings to the class. Then have students vote on one or more charities they want to assist through their efforts during the year.
There’s No Place Like Home: Arrange for members of various parish outreach ministries to visit your class to be interviewed about the work they do. Prepare the children for the interview by describing the work of the group(s) to them and helping them to create a list of questions they would like the speaker to address. Very often, the adage “charity begins at home” best takes root when children see parish organizations, staffed by their neighbors, involved in outreach to the poor.
Instrument of Peace: Remind students that our Holy Father chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Read a short biography of St. Francis to the class or have students read accounts of St. Francis’ life from websites. Discuss with the class what Pope Francis and St. Francis have in common (a love for the poor and a simple lifestyle). Pray together the Prayer of St. Francis. Invite volunteers to share how they can reach out to others by being an “instrument of (God’s) peace.”
The Living Word: There are many Scripture stories that emphasize God’s call to serve others. You will want to have students memorize the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) and the Law of Love (John 15:12). Three other stories should become second nature to the students as well: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-10), which teaches that we are, indeed, our brother’s keeper; the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which teaches that every living person is our neighbor; and the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-40), which teaches that when we show love for others, we are showing our love for Christ. Have students act out the stories, draw murals illustrating them, tell and retell them, create scenarios which show them being lived out in their daily lives, and so forth. In short, do everything you can to ingrain these directives in the children’s lives.
A Shared Mission
• It’s not a sprint! It’s a marathon! Kids cannot possibly integrate the call to serve others into their lives based on one session in your classroom. Talk with your DRE and fellow catechists about developing strategies for reaching out to others across all grade levels of your program every year.
• Involve parents! Make outreach a family affair by establishing a permanent parent committee to promote love and service to others at home and in program activities. While the activities may change from year to year, remain committed to fostering the call to love one another. The children will grasp that this is how we live our faith.
• Celebrate and encourage parish-wide efforts! Your parish probably has many ministries and countless parishioners involved in outreach. However, it’s often the case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Work with the staff to group parish ministries (liturgical, catechetical, outreach, etc.). Duplicate the list for the bulletin, along with a letter from the pastor or the president of the parish council, applauding the work that goes on to serve the parish and others. Encourage parishioners to get involved and to offer additional ministry suggestions.
Words to Live By
Pope Francis’ homilies, his remarks at papal audiences and other gatherings, and his writings tell us how we can serve others. Share the quotations below with your class and discuss them. Challenge students to choose one of the quotes and decide on two ways they can put the Pope’s words into practice.
On Jesus’ example: “Washing one another’s feet signifies welcoming, accepting, loving and serving one another. It means serving the poor, the sick and the outcast” (homily in Jerusalem’s Upper Room, May 27, 2014).
On what is newsworthy: “If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news, it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street—this doesn’t make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops 10 points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by 10 points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash” (General Audience, World Environment Day, June 5, 2013).
On the sinking of a migrant boat: “Today is a day for crying. The world does not care about those fleeing poverty and hunger, who seek freedom but instead find death” (BBC News, October 4, 2013).
On justice: “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being” (address to the Food and Agricultural Organization, May 20, 2013).
On the cry of the poor: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid” (Evangelii Gaudium, 187).
On true happiness: “What is glorified is success at any cost, affluence, the arrogance of power, and self-affirmation at the expense of others. Jesus challenges us, young friends, to take seriously his approach to life and to decide which is right for us and leads to true joy” (World Youth Day, Rome, 2014).
On our call: “The ‘yoke’ of the Lord consists in taking the burden of the other upon oneself, with brotherly love. Once you have received the refreshment and comfort of Christ, we are called to become refreshment and comfort for our brothers and sisters. With a meek and humble attitude, in imitation of the Master” (Sunday Angelus, Rome, July 9, 2014).
Pope Francis Tweets Love and Service
1. If possible, show the students Pope Francis’ page on the Vatican website by going to vatican.va and displaying it on a large screen that can be seen by all. Or have the students copy the address of the website to complete the assignment at home.
2. After looking at the various elements of the pope’s page (biography, photos, homilies, encyclicals, etc.), point out the blue Twitter symbol on the page. Tell the class that the pope sends out a daily tweet.
3. Working at home, have students locate the website. Instruct them to read through several weeks of Pope Francis’ tweets. Ask them to choose a favorite and write it on a page of notebook paper. Then have them each write a one paragraph reflection on what the pope is teaching us in this message.
4. At your next session, encourage volunteers to share their work with the class.
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