Is Francis Talking to Me?

On Saturday evening, my friend Chris and I went exploring. Our first stop was a beautiful old Church in a once beautiful Pittsburgh neighborhood. Chris had happened upon the parish a few weeks back, but locked doors kept him out. This time, however, we timed our arrival to coincide with the vigil Mass. Locked door problem solved.

As we walked towards the steps, Chris pointed out a house immediately across the street from the parish. In its windows, hung a sign: “Stop Shooting. We love you.” Always reassuring.


Nothing says “Welcome to the neighborhood” quite like this.

Inside, the Church was lovely. Unfortunately, it was also empty. Maybe 70 people sat in pews that easily could have sat 700. It was quiet too. No noises or cries from small children broke the silence. In fact, save for two teenagers and one young mom, Chris and I were the youngest people there. And at 45 and 38 respectively, spring chickens we ain’t.

After Mass, a small group of elderly people stopped us to chat. We paid a compliment or two and Chris mentioned he’d tried visiting before. The parishioners just nodded their heads.

“Can’t keep it open anymore,” one older gentleman told us. “It’s the kids. We just spent $35,000 fixing the stained glass. They keep breaking the windows. It’s the same in the school. It’s closed now, but we can’t board the windows up fast enough. And the pipes and gutters, they’ve taken all them too.”

“Copper,” another woman added, by way of explanation.

Right then, the priest, who was making his way back up the aisle, stopped to chat with our little group. The conversation repeated itself—“Such a beautiful Church.” “Such a bad neighborhood.”

“Sounds like you’ve cut your work cut out for you,” said Chris, adding some momentary variety to the dialogue. “You’ll have to get out and evangelize those boys.”

The priest rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Them? Not likely.” He then moved on to another topic—not in haste, just in total disinterest. To him, evangelizing the neighborhood wasn’t worth a second thought.

Not long after, Chris and I said our goodbyes. As we drove away, past homes with boarded up windows of their own, the conversation turned to Pope Francis and his now famous (or depending on your perspective, infamous) interview in America.

Since the interview came out, Chris has been more sanguine than I.

“He’s doing something great,” he’s reassured me more than once. “He’s going out to the margins. He’s shaking things up. He’s being bold. When you’re bold, you sometimes say things that get misunderstood.”

He said much the same thing as we drove away from the parish.

“That’s who Francis was talking to,” he said. “I’m sure that priest has many virtues, and that parish has many good people. But any life it’s got left in it is kept inside behind locked doors.”

He’s right, of course. That is whom Francis was talking to. He was talking to that priest and his parishioners. He was talking to every corner of the Church that’s tired, stagnant, and turned in on itself. He was also talking to the neighborhood around the Church, to all the people those inside the Church have given up on.

And, in all that, as I’m coming to see, he was also talking to me. And probably you.

Like that priest and his parish, most of us also keep something locked up inside, some piece of our life we’re not willing to give away, some death we’re not willing to die. Most of also have some task set before us by God, a task at which we roll our eyes because it seems too risky, too dangerous, too impossibly hard to even contemplate, let alone carry out. And the world around us, like that troubled Pittsburgh neighborhood, pays for that.

Personally, I’d rather not think about what I’m not giving or doing. I’d prefer to focus on Francis’ choice of words in his interview: what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I would have done differently. It’s so much easier to deconstruct an interview than change a life.

Deconstructing an interview, however, won’t get me to Heaven.

That’s not to say I’ve come around to thinking every word of that interview perfectly chosen. I’m not there yet. But I do see that every word of that interview wasn’t for me. Some words were for that Pittsburgh priest. Some words were for the boys playing in the streets outside his parish. Other words were for a woman wounded by abortion, a man wounded by greed, an ex-Catholic wounded by scandal.

I’m also coming to see that my task isn’t to worry about the words that were there for everyone else. My task is to focus on the words that were there for me. It’s to re-read every last line and ask at their conclusion, “Is Francis talking to me?

I can’t complain about that lukewarm priest refusing to ask that question if I refuse to do the same.

And yes, I know, I don’t have to treat the interview way. It’s a piece in America, not the Catechism. But, come Judgment Day, I won’t be answering for what Pope Francis said in some interview. I’ll be answering for the task I wouldn’t do, the death I wouldn’t die, the people I didn’t love, the Good News I didn’t proclaim.

In short, I’ll be answering for me.

Pope Francis sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but that’s not a bad thing. At the end of my life, I don’t want to look back and see that I was like that priest, rolling my eyes at my what God wants of me. Nor do I want to see that I was like that parish, hiding from the world behind locked doors, or like that neighborhood, bereft of life and hope and beauty. I want to look back and see that I was like Christ, that I walked a path on which I loved him and served him well.

That’s not going to be a comfortable path. It’s going to take a whole lot of poking and prodding to keep me on it. That’s what Francis seems to be trying to do, poking and prodding, keeping all of us—faithful and unfaithful—from getting too comfortable. I’m not going to say to No to that prodding. Like it or not, I need it.

My guess is you do too.



Categories:Pope Francis

  • Jonathan Howell

    Emily, Thank you so much. This is exactly what we need to hear. I thanked God for you today. Peace.


    Dear Emily ~
    I have several thoughts on this excellent column.
    First, I believe we’re better off listening to the main thrust of the Holy Father’s thinking rather than obsessively deconstructing every speech, article or informal comment for what we like or don’t like. Since the America interview I’ve read gay writers attack him because he didn’t immediately change Church practices or teachings. Similarly, conservative Catholics have engaged in amazing intellectual gymnastics to convince us (and maybe themselves) that’s “there’s nothing new here, move along folks.”

    The Pittsburgh priest is beaten down. His parish is likely struggling financially. They sound like they’re living in a state of siege and with mostly older parishioners it’s hard to mobilize an outreach program.

    I suspect what the Pope is trying to convey is that we, the faithful and society in general, need to support and empower this priest and parish and the thousands of priests and parishes just like it all over America. Are the diocese and the other, better off, parishes doing everything possible to support father and his flock? Are we using our voice in the public square effectively enough advocating for public strategies that would at least “lift the siege” and vote for the funding to do so.
    This is the direction I believe Francis is leading us in. There is “something new” here. Approaching the Normandy beaches on D-Day, a commander told his men “This is the biggest party we’re ever going to be invited to. Let’s all get on the floor and dance.” I’ve come to believe that this message applies to us here and now.

    Pax tecum,


  • Brian Sullivan

    If you think Emily’s too rough on our priests, read St. Augustine’s sermon to Shepherds in the 2nd reading for this weeks and last weeks Liturgy of the Hours. It’s based on Ezekiel.

  • Rick S.

    I have been in several Pittsburgh parishes just like that. Many have closed since they were more of a congregation of people with the same nationality who happened to be Catholic. I do love living in Virginia where the diversity is amazing. You know people are there for Christ and the Church because we don’t share much else in common.

  • Chris

    You’re too rough on our priests!

    • Emily Stimpson

      No rougher than I am on myself.

  • http://CityofSanJose Jose Salcido

    Hi Emily, great comments!!! I wanted to pass on some information on how the priest in Pittsburg can turn his situation around. A good book to read is “Upon this Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church” by Samuel G. Freedman. This is a story about a congregation that decided to roll up their sleeves and change their neighborhood. I’m the Senior Policy Advisor for Mayor Chuck Reed and there are many things that the Faith Community can do to stop vandalism and juvenile violence. Check out these websites” youth and crime, both are national initiatives to reduce juvenile violence. As you know, God works miracles whenever we decide to do his work.

    • JM

      thank you for sharing your thoughts and the website references. I will read through at least the websites tonight. I live in CT, but our parish sounds similar to the one Emily describes in Pittsburgh and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much we need to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood more, no matter how far that may take us out of our comfort zone.



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