Story behind the retreat

It began with the simple task of reading the pope’s daily homily and writing an introduction to a blog post, a task which grew into reading three years’ worth of homilies in less than a month. Preparing the In Focus felt like taking a crash-course in the thought of Pope Francis, and indeed the story-writing process was a journey that has borne much fruit.

I vividly remember the day of Pope St. John Paul II’s death, and the echoes of “Esta es la juventude de Papa” that I chanted with some 100,000 other young Catholics at World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid with Pope Benedict still ring in my ears. Growing up under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, I felt like I had a grasp of the papal style of writing and teaching the Faith.

And then came Pope Francis. Even after listening to reflections from priests and talking to officials from Vatican Radio, I sometimes still only partially understood Francis’ approach. Reading and reflecting his homilies this summer gave me a better sense of his vision for the Church.

I spent a large part of the month of June poring over books of the pope’s homilies, trying to read through a month or so at a time. I even took the book with me to Eucharistic adoration, making it the text of my own retreat.

What struck me most about Pope Francis’ homilies was their beauty. He gives down-to-earth practical advice, firmly rooted in the daily Scripture readings, that is simple, conversational in tone and inspires the listener (or reader) to strive for holiness. As I continued to read more of his homilies, I began to see the pieces fall into place of his vision for the Church — for us.

He points to daily attitudes — gratitude, prayers of praise, remembering what God has done for us, touching the wounds of Christ in the poor, examining our own failures, having patience with others, avoiding gossip and hypocrisy — by which we can become more like Christ. His approach is that of simplicity and yet he recognizes how demanding and transformative his suggestions are in practice. It’s that recognition and simplicity that makes his requests so beautiful.

Pope Francis’ vision of the Christian life is challenging, for he wants us to encounter our own brokenness in the presence of the Lord so as to meet and embrace the brokenness of others. I know I, for one, have been too quick, when questions of faith arise, to jump and hide behind Church doctrine, instead of meeting others with compassion in their questioning, searching and suffering. It’s hard to face one’s own faults, but it’s necessary if one is to look upon the sins of others with the merciful eyes of Christ. The pope’s aim in his daily homilies is not only to help us be more like Christ, but to form us in the virtues so that we can be other Christs to the world.

Once I realized that, picking themes to examine in the In Focus was actually easy. Pope Francis mentioned each of them multiple times (as evidenced by the quotes), but most of them had a quote that particularly struck a chord in me as well. As I kept a list of possible topics during my reading and came to understand more of Pope Francis’ vision, I saw how all the topics started to fit together and these five prominently emerged: memory, prayer, examination of conscience, lukewarmness, and humility and joy.

This project also gave me context for Pope Francis’ more widely discussed remarks. I still can’t say that I understand all of the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks, but reading his homilies — on how we as members of the Church need to reach out to the marginalized, promote peace and end persecution by ending the “daily war of gossip” in our communities, and practice humility and forgiveness so as to be able to heal each other’s wounds — has given me reason to pause when the secular media pounces on his unscripted words. In a world saturated by technology and the “throwaway culture,” maybe the pope’s emphasis on the personal is something radical.

While the media often likes to emphasize the differences between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, this project actually enabled me to recognize their continuity. As Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, our now retired pope issued a message in 2002 entitled “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.” In it, he discusses the beauty of Christ and the evangelizing power of beauty itself:

“I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the Faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

It is these witnesses, these saints that Pope Francis wants us, as members of the Church, to be. Through his daily homilies, Pope Francis is offering us fatherly advice and guidance — sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully — to polish our daily Christian witness so that we can bear the beauty of Christ and His mercy to our desperately hurting and wounded world.

Amy Marter is an OSV Newsweekly intern.