NEW YORK – At a time when divisiveness runs rampant in the church and broader society, Kim Daniels suggested a way to overcome it is stepping back from “large forces” like media and politics and living out the Catholic faith through service in everyday life.

“When you’re busy, when you’re working to help people, when you’re focused on service to the least of these, these kinds of issues become less important,” said Daniels, the co-director of the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, on March 1.

“In the last week as we watched what happened in Ukraine, I think we can all come together around the idea that we need to stand in solidarity, certainly with people there, and maybe even broaden our lens to stand in solidarity with each other as well,” she continued.

Daniels’ comments were made during a discussion hosted by the Georgetown initiative on March 1, “The Francis Factor at Nine Years: Synodality and Solidarity, Reform and Resistance,” that explored the key themes of Pope Francis’s pontificate so far and how they relate to a number of situations society faces.

Among the themes were encounter, listening, mercy, mission, and discipleship.

Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley also spoke about the importance of encounter as a vehicle of bringing people together, specifically as it relates to her work with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Participants in the March 1, 2022 Georgetown University dialogue “The Francis Factor at Nine Years: Synodality and Solidarity, Reform and Resistance”. Top row: Sr. Norma Pimentel, M.J., John Carr, and Kim Daniels. Bottom row: Stephen White and Sr. Alessandra Smerilli, FMA (Credit: Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life).

“When we see people hurting, lives destroyed, it touches us in a very special way,” Pimentel said. “Ultimately, what we need to do is put aside those things that separate us and focus on the things that bring us together,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel added that the challenge from Pope Francis for all Catholics is to “make it a priority in our lives to care, to stand up, to listen and to do things.”

Sister Alessandra Smerilli, the interim secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said one way to react to polarization that stems from proclamations from Pope Francis is to offer a reminder that his words are rooted in the gospel.

“It’s not because Pope Francis is saying something that we should comply or listen; it’s because Pope Francis is just repeating and spreading the gospel and maybe giving fresh air to the gospel,” said Smerilli, who is also a leader on the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission.

Daniels, who is also a member of the communications commission for the 2021-2023 Synod on Synodality underway worldwide, spoke about the synod as it relates to the mission of the church. She said Francis has consistently called for a more missionary church, and that this global exercise in listening between clergy and lay people can move the church in that direction – so long as both parties are committed to the opportunity.

“[People] have to see themselves as missionary disciples and responsible for the church moving forward in the world,” Daniels said. “Our witness in the world is weakened if we don’t reflect this kind of style.”

Daniels added that it’s important to recognize that the synod is rooted in the challenges of today, in particular the clergy abuse crisis, which was rooted in clericalism and for that reason calls for more lay involvement in the church, she said.

“I see this as an enormous responsibility to the victim-survivors of clergy abuse,” Daniels said. “We’ve been talking about lay people having a voice. Here’s a chance.”

Stephen White, the executive director of The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America also weighed in on the clergy sex abuse crisis through Pope Francis’s pontificate.

White said while it’s hard to evaluate Francis’s legacy on the clergy sex abuse crisis even nine years in, he acknowledged the pontiff’s record hasn’t been perfect, but through changes like Vos Estis Lux Mundi – Vatican legislation that held bishops accountable over coverups – improvements to bishop accountability have been made.

White noted that there are things both sides can do to improve the handling of the topic. Lay people, he said, should try to be patient “as hard as that can be,” and continue working for justice while “recognizing that the satisfaction of justice we long for is something that we’re probably not going to ever get perfectly in this world and there’s no pope who can change that.”

On the other hand, White said, church leaders need to be more transparent.

“One of the things that still frustrates so many parts of the church is that even when the church is doing the right thing in handling a case there’s still often very little transparency and we just don’t know how things are being handled,” White said. “So I think to overcome some of the deficit of trust that’s built up over the recent years I think greater transparency, especially from Rome, would be helpful on a lot of these issues.”

White also weighed in on the need for Catholics to be missionary disciples. He pointed to the wealth of the American Catholic Church compared to others worldwide as an easily missed fact that has a profound impact on the level of true discipleship across the nation.

“It’s easy to look at the discipleship either in terms of explaining what the church says about x, y, or z, and I’m all for being able to explain and understand what the church teaches, but the kind of personal sacrifice that’s required for discipleship is not something that comes easily to a comfortable people,” White said, adding that a key to overcoming the divisiveness is for people to return “to a radical understanding of what it means to be a disciple.”

John Carr, co-director of the Georgetown Initiative, weighed in only briefly at the end of the discussion to applaud Pope Francis’s emphasis on the margins.

“I think Pope Francis looks at the world from the bottom up and the church from the outside in and that makes me profoundly uncomfortable and that is a good place for me to be,” Carr said.

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