For some years now, the Catholic Church in the United States has been experiencing signs of new energy and new life — something of a new Pentecost. We just witnessed this real, tangible and electric energy when we saw images of Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, praying with and celebrating Mass before an estimated crowd of more than 3 million joyous and enthusiastic young people.
Here in Washington, signs of this energy and life are manifested in many subtle yet substantial ways. For example, in the Archdiocese of Washington last Easter, we received more than 1,200 new members into the church. Young people and young adults are responding with a new openness to the voice of the church and the call of the Gospel. Our two-year-old Blessed John Paul II College Seminary is filled, and a new wing is underway. Pope Francis has become a catalyst for this fresh awareness of the importance of Jesus’ Gospel and what it offers us as we seek to respond to the perennial questions of the human heart: How shall I live? What are the values I want to embrace? What is the purpose of all of this?
From the moment he stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis has captured the hearts, imagination and vision of growing multitudes of people. Before the curtains parted, and he was seen on the loggia, so much of the world was focused on St. Peter’s Square. Catholics recognize that, whoever is pope, he is the Rock upon which Christ has founded his church. He is the touchstone for our connectedness with the Apostles, and, therefore, Jesus.
Five years ago, Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed in Washington by huge crowds during his historic apostolic visit. He said he came “as a witness to Christ, our hope,” and he encouraged people to be a source of love and hope to their families, their communities, their nation and their world.
The millions gathered from around the world in Rio de Janeiro have now experienced that same joy of a papal visit. Many people from our metropolitan area were there in person, and they were joined in spirit and united in prayer with more than 500 joyous young adults who participated locally via “Rio in D.C.,” a special event at the Franciscan monastery in Northeast Washington. Countless more people followed along from home on television and the Internet.
Notwithstanding various social and cultural trends, some of which seek to marginalize God, the church remains a steady rock of faith in the world. There is a palpable awakening of the Spirit in the hearts of many people, who have realized that the frenetic pace and multiple diversions of our contemporary world are unable to satisfy the longings of the heart. Many people today echo the words of one “Rio in D.C.” participant: “I love my God. I love my pope. I love my faith.”
While the church has existed for two millennia, we see from this celebration of faith in Rio that the church is ever young. In the prayers and words offered by Pope Francis, we see once again that the saving message of the Gospel is ancient, yet ever new. This pontiff may have his own style, emphasizing certain things, saying things in his own particular way, but the substance of what he is saying is what was said by Pope Benedict and Blessed Pope John Paul II before him, and so on back to the birth of the church. In continuity with them, Pope Francis now calls us to what has been named the new evangelization. Here, he asks us to be urgent witnesses of joy and confident bearers of hope to others, helping to build a civilization of inclusion, solidarity and love.
Before his election, I mentioned that more than ever, papal service in our day involves a ministry of presence in the lives of people. Pope Francis has not only done that, but he has challenged us all to engage in a ministry of presence, to draw near to others so that they might encounter the love and truth of Jesus. “Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent,” said the pope at the World Youth Day Mass. “The Lord seeks all. He wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and his love.”
This apostolic journey of Pope Francis, as with past World Youth Days and our own 2008 papal visit, is sure to bear fruit for many years to come. Those who participate become leaven for our world, as we saw with World Youth Day in Denver 20 years ago this month. That was a momentous event that changed the lives of so many people in the United States, prompting so many vocations to the priesthood, consecrated religious life and lay ministry. That is what these joyous celebrations of faith are capable of, transforming people’s lives and inspiring them to become a light of the love and truth of Jesus to others, and thereby help make a better world.
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl is the Catholic archbishop of Washington.