LIMA, Peru – Pope Francis is widely seen as a reformer, a leader shaking things up in the Church he leads, but sometimes he seems so fast and furious about it, it’s hard to know precisely what sort of reform he wants.
In what amounted to his farewell address to his own flock in Peru on Sunday, Francis boiled it down to the basics: More than anything else, he wants a Church that’s “involved.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven means finding in Jesus a God who gets involved with the lives of his people,” Francis said. “He gets involved and involves others not to be afraid to make of our history a history of salvation.”
“Jesus walks through the city with his disciples and begins to see, to hear, to notice those who have given up in the face of indifference, laid low by the grave sin of corruption,” the pope said. “He calls his disciples and invites them to set out with him.”
The setting for the pope’s comments was the Peruvian city of Lima, located on the coast in the country’s northwest, during an open-air Mass celebrated on an air base in order to accommodate the large crowd, which, according to the Vatican spokesperson, was estimated by local authorities at 1.3 million.
Since he landed in Peru three days ago, the pontiff has urged Catholics to engage the major social and political challenges in the country, ranging from the suffering and marginalization experienced by indigenous persons, especially those concentrated in the Amazon, to the struggle against corruption, with two former presidents currently fighting criminal charges and the incumbent himself facing serious allegations.
Francis legendarily has a gift for sound-bites, and on Sunday he coined a new one for what he’s calling the Church to avoid: The “Jonah syndrome.”
The context was a Bible reading for the day’s Mass, which tells the story of the Old Testament figure of Jonah – who, charged by the Lord to proclaim his judgment on the city of Nineveh, instead becomes frightened and runs away. Francis said on Sunday that the same thing often happens today, when believers see terrible things in their cities and are tempted to pull away.
The pope refers to that temptation as the “Jonah syndrome.”
“Our cities, with their daily situations of pain and injustice, can leave us tempted to flee, to hide, to run away,” he said. “Jonah, and us, we have plenty of excuses to do so.”
“We become indifferent, and as a result, anonymous and deaf to others, cold and hard of heart,” the pope said. “When this happens, we wound the soul of our people.”
Francis said that Jesus is, in a sense, the answer to Jonah.
“Unlike Jonah, Jesus reacted to the distressing and unjust news of John’s arrest by entering the city,” he said. “He entered Galilee and from its small towns he began to sow the seeds of a great hope: that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that God is among us.”
Following that example, Francis said, Christians today can be “a timely antidote to the globalization of indifference.”
Jesus, the pope said, calls his followers today to get involved in the same way he did.
“He encourages us to enter like leaven into where we are, where we live, into every corner of our daily life,” Francis said. “The kingdom of heaven is among you, he tells us. It is there wherever we strive to show a little tenderness and compassion, wherever we are unafraid to create spaces for the blind to see, the paralyzed to walk, lepers to be cleansed and the deaf to hear.”
“God will never tire of setting out to meet his children. How will we enkindle hope if prophets are lacking?” the pope asked. “How will Jesus reach all those corners if daring and courageous witnesses are lacking?”
“Today,” he said, “the Lord calls each of you to walk with him in the city, in your city.”
After a brief farewell ceremony tonight at the airport in Lima, Francis will depart for Rome at the end of a Jan. 15-21 Latin American swing that took him to both Chile and Peru. During the return trip, the pontiff is expected to hold his customary in-flight news conference.
The pope’s first public activity after his return to Rome is scheduled for Jan. 24, with the traditional Wednesday General Audience. The next day, Francis is expected to cross town to mark the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with a visit to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.