Writing to the pope

by Colleen Gibson


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The first call came after five days. Pope Francis called the newsstand where he would buy his daily paper in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription. It seemed he was going to be away longer than expected.

I remember reading that first news report in March 2013; it was almost as surreal as the turn of events that had taken place over the preceding weeks. For the first time in 600 years, a pope resigned and for the first time ever, a Jesuit was elected to the papacy. Now it is history, tempered by time, but still no less remarkable.

The world has sat intrigued with each phone call — with the pope who would call and the people who have written. There was the young student who shared his hopes, the single mother who was trying to make it on her own, the newspaper editor and atheist. They all wrote, and Francis called.

I remember as a student reading about the great people of faith who had written to popes. They were distant figures of faith. They were people the likes of whom time holds sparingly — the saints and rulers, reformers and rabble-rousers, the Catherines of Siena and not the Jane Does of this world. And yet, in a world where popes resign and successors make follow-up phone calls, the thought of writing to a pope doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

So, how do you write to a pope? Or more importantly, what do you write to the pope?

With Pope Francis headed to the United States, and in particular to my own city of Philadelphia, in a few short weeks, I found myself asking that exact question.

If watching Francis has taught me anything, though, the answer to that first question is clear. The only way you could possibly write is from the heart. Any other way would be a sham. A letter from me would be different from your letter, just as my life is different from yours. And yet, to write from the heart is to mirror the deeper call within and beyond us to live from the heart, too. To live lives of such authenticity, we have to align ourselves with the heart of Gospel, beginning with the way we relate to one another and to God. Any other way would be a deception.

This is the foundation of our being. And beyond the boundaries of language or religion, Francis has made this point poignantly in the witness he bears. This is not always perfect, but it is honest and for that, I give thanks. If nothing else, that way of living and being — from the heart — gives us the example of how to, far beyond letter-writing.

From the heart come words of gratitude, statements of truth, and deep sharing of hopes and dreams. Putting any one of those things into writing is a task, and yet, when I consider what, if anything, I would want to write to the pope, it is those deeply-held beliefs, deeply-transformed visions and deeply-fostered emotions and dreams that rise to the surface.

Somehow, even though I have never met the man, there is a desire within me to share from the depths of my being with him. That compulsion, at times, seems to me to be foolish. Why write? What difference could it make? Would the letter even be read? And if it was, is there a risk to such honest sharing?

I wonder all these things, and yet, the desire to write still remains.

Part of that desire is to say thank you:

Thank you for listening and collaborating. Thank you for taking into account a vision that is bigger than any one of us can see. Thank you for challenging the way things are and for being open to what might be. Thank you for discerning in an open and ongoing way. And thank you for your example of mercy, of faith and of vocation.

Early on in Francis’ papacy a reporter asked me if my vocation was influenced by Pope Francis. I was already a novice in a congregation of women religious by the time Francis was elected, so the initial planting and pursuit of my vocation didn’t have anything to do with him, I explained. Yet as I spoke, I came to realize the influence he was having (and continues to have) on me and my vocation.

There’s something spontaneous and compelling about seeing someone lead the life they are meant to live. Francis does that. For all the shifts that come with becoming an international figure/celebrity/leader, Francis remains a vowed religious. It is something in his blood and being, a product of his ongoing formation and commitment as a Jesuit. This makes him not only an example of faith but also an example of what it means to live a committed vowed religious life.

There is a deep blessing in witnessing the principles of my life not only lived out in the everyday, but also exemplified by the leader of our church. It adds to his allure and speaks deeply to me as a young woman religious.

The community Pope Francis refers to is not in theory, it’s a lived reality. Anyone living religious life will tell you that the theology of encounter is not just about beautiful relationships with others. More often, it is the courage and compassion to find Christ in the one across from you. That isn’t always easy when the signs of grace aren’t so clear, when you’ve just gotten home from a long day of ministering, or when the one who needs to take a long hard look at his or her living is, in fact, you.

True to his vocation as a vowed religious, Francis’ life gives flesh words and actions in a way that is revolutionary and real. Who else could declare a year of consecrated life with such conviction and deeper appreciation of the internal and external work that declaration would precipitate? Only time will tell what the full impact of such actions on religious life and the church will be.

Write to the realities

Where gratitude begins, however, reality must interject. There’s a certain balance to be found in conveying the reality of what it means to enter religious life today. The church and the world are at critical moments, just as religious life is. I know the pope knows this — it is reflected in the signs of the times, the news of the world, and Francis’ own writings.

Still, there is something to the perspective the next generation brings. This is the reality we are facing as religious congregations. Telling the story of religious life (and the church) from a perspective other than from the top down would be helpful and healthy. We need to listen to the voices on the margins, to incorporate the gift of our individual stories, to create connections beyond provincial boundaries, and to share honestly from the heart our hopes, fears, dreams and struggles. That at least would be a start.

Out of reality, dreams and hopes emerge. It’s facing that reality with honest hearts and faithful desires that leads us forward. I can only speak from where I stand. My perspective is influenced by my life and the way I hear the call. As a young, educated, vowed religious in a first-world country, I know I don’t have all the answers, but I know my experience and my desire for a deeper, more intentional and authentic life lived in Christ through the church. This means letting go, facing change and voicing what is and could be. It may also mean asking where the greatest needs are in the world for all that I/we have to offer.

No letter will ever be complete, but perhaps the best place to end is where Francis has led us from the very beginning of his papacy on that balcony high above St. Peter’s square: a place of prayer.

I’ll pray for Francis whether I end up writing a letter or not. I trust he’s already praying for me, maybe not by name, but as a shepherd cares for his flock. The assurance of prayer is a call I can answer, so that even when the words escape me I can pause, give thanks, ask blessing and engage reality wherever it may lead.

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]