NEW YORK – When Father Joseph Friend had about 20 seconds to greet Pope Francis near the end of a recent retreat for parish priests in Rome, he spoke about the work he does with immigrants in his community, to which he said the pontiff replied, “Continue to work with the immigrant, continue to work with them and love them!”

The interaction took place in Spanish, something Friend credits to those he serves.

“When I got to speak to him, and I serve many Mexican immigrants, I thought about how cool it is that there’s the spirit of the poor, the spirit of the marginalized, the spirit of those who struggle, but it is through the immigrant that I was able to speak to the Holy Father in his native tongue,” Friend told Crux.

Friend’s personal moment with Pope Francis came on the last day of the April 28-May 2 retreat, when the pontiff visited with the approximate 200 parish priests from around the world in attendance. Friend, who is the pastoral administrator of Holy Cross Church, Holy Spirit Church, and Our Lady of the Lake Church in the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of five American priests in attendance.

Other than brief, individual greetings with each priest, Friend said Pope Francis spent an hour and a half speaking to them in a question-and-answer format. Friend said Pope Francis told them to be better brother priests and be better connected to their bishops, warned how gossip can destroy a presbyterate, spoke about discernment, and emphasized the spirit of synodality and the spirit of mission.

“Gosh, the Holy Spirit was so present in his voice. I was just crying the whole time. I was sitting there, thinking ‘this is the vicar of Christ, and we get to sit in front of him and listen to him for an hour and a half,’” Friend said. “It was so clear the spirit was with him. Everything he was saying was needed.”

Related to the spirit of mission, Friend said Pope Francis pushed them to really get out into their communities and live out the faith, and to embrace the gifts the laity bring to the faith community.

“I really am inspired to bring that missionary spirit back to our parish, and I think synodality makes the most sense in the grassroots,” Friend explained. “People are trying to look up and get a clear definition of it, but it’s more of a reality to be lived where you are, sitting down with your people, asking them where the holes are, who’s in need, how can we serve them, what are our spiritual needs, what are we lacking in our prayer life and how can we better respond as a Church.”

Before the time with Pope Francis, the priests had already had four days together.

Friend said he knew the retreat would be an amazing experience from the moment the priests gathered near St. Peter’s Basilica to get their passports checked by the Swiss Guard, and load on to buses to head over to the retreat location outside of Rome. Friend said the first people he met when he arrived, suitcase still in hand, were priests from China, the Congo, Japan, Argentina, and Paraguay.

“Just think of the map of airplanes going all across the world and priests on these different airplanes and all converging at St. Peter’s [Square]. How beautiful is that?” Friend asked. “15 hour flights, 9 hour flights, 10 hour flights, and all of the sudden we’re walking with our bags up to each other.”

“It was amazing,” Friend added.

Once the retreat got underway, Friend said they started everyday with breakfast at 7 a.m., followed by prayer at 8 a.m. From there they spent time in their small groups responding to a central question presented to them each day, and also responding to questions posed in different presentations.

Friend said his group included a priest from Mexico, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Malta, Ireland, England, Scotland and two from the Philippines. He also said he met a priest from Iraq whose parish was destroyed by ISIS, a priest from Russia who talked about the parishes that have been taken by the government, and a priest from Sri Lanka who was in the parish that was bombed in the 2019 Easter bombing.

However, no matter where the priests were from, Friend said they all faced the same challenges – nihilism, individualism, and hedonism in their communities. He said he heard those three words from priests from all over the world time and time again.

Another takeaway from the retreat, Friend said, is the universality of the Church in the sense that the priesthood is a brotherhood, and they’re not “individual popes in our little counties.”

“We have to be together as brothers, and I think in our dioceses that was cultivated in the seminary and it’s highly cultivated now,” Friend said. “It’s not to say the spirit hasn’t been working, and I think we’ve done a lot of good things as steps in formation, but this just gives me all the more zeal to work with my brother priests and to realize that we’re together on a mission.”

Crux spoke with Friend on May 9, a week after the conclusion of the retreat. He said when he returned, he was able to thank the immigrants in his community for giving him a special moment he had with Pope Francis. And he has spoken to a few of his brother priests about helping to keep him more accountable in speaking about others.

In general though, Friend said he’s being prudent in how he shares what he learned with his community.

“We were tasked with being missionaries of synodality. And I can certainly come back and force the message down people’s throats … but that’s going to be determined, what does it mean to be a missionary of synodality?” Friend asked.

“That’s something I’m taking very seriously in prayer, and asking for the guidance of the spirit, and to be prudent in the next steps I take as a missionary of synodality.”

Reflecting on the fact that the retreat even happened, he said it’s a sign of health in the Church.

“How cool is it that [Pope Francis] selected a few guys from the grassroots level to be able to experience that. Whereas before, when would this have happened in the synodal process?” Friend wondered.

“Obviously, it’s a thing for bishops and cardinals and God bless them and I thank them for their ministry, but for the average guy living in the Delta in Arkansas, this is probably the first time in history, probably, that we were invited to do something like this and maybe there’s some health in that,” Friend said.

Follow John Lavenburg on X: @johnlavenburg