It was a scene replayed over and over during Pope Francis’ visit. Thousands of arms outstretched, reaching out, straining against barricades… ultimately blocked, not by fences, but by their iPhones and cameras separating them from the Pope. City block after city block, did the Holy Father search for eyes, only to be greeted by the backs of phones and iPads? A little girl tried her hardest to stop her shaking hands so she could steady her iPad as the Pope passed within ten feet of her. The entire time the Pope was in front of her, her eyes were on her screen. A man turned his back to the Holy Father, attempting to get a selfie with the Popemobile in the background. Over and over, variations of the same theme – the desperate attempt to capture a scene on camera instead of resting in the moment.
I don’t blame these people, for I found myself in the same predicament. Do I stand and take the moment in with my whole self, but risk losing the opportunity to have a picture for myself of what I experienced? Even though I vowed to put my camera away, the temptation was too great and I ended up whipping it out at the last moment to grab a blurry picture of my Pontiff.
Thousands of people encountered Francis in varying degrees on his papal trip to the United States, and everyone came away with a story of how he touched them. I saw people in tears, simply because they saw him drive by. Whether it was a hug or simply a wave from afar, people were changed by being in his presence. I couldn’t help but wonder how much deeper the effects would have been if we had set down our phones and cameras.
What these people experienced, quite simply, was the power of encounter. The Holy Father, the successor of Peter, was coming to them to bring them Jesus. Through his presence, they were experiencing something much greater than a superstar sighting. They were experiencing Christ in unique way, present in his Vicar.
Pope Francis began his visit to the United States placing it in this context. “I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people” (emphasis added). He wasn’t just coming to wave and smile, to pose for pictures, or to give us soundbites. He was coming to encounter us and allow us to encounter him.
And while the encounter with a Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, is something unique, we are all called to encounter the other. When speaking to the homeless in New York City, Francis reminded them, “How good it is for us to pray together. How good it is to encounter one another in this place where we see one another as brothers and sisters, where we realize that we need one another. Today I want to pray with you, I want to join with you, because I need your support, your closeness” (emphasis added).
He reminded the Bishops of the United States, “We are promoters of the culture of encounter…to propose his offer of love.” He urged them to be witnesses of Christ’s refreshment and light in a dark and confusing world, to a people who have been wounded and confused. “This kind of witness is a beacon whose light can reassure men and women sailing through the dark clouds of life that a sure haven awaits them, that they will not crash on the reefs or be overwhelmed by the waves.”
This is not just the responsibility of the clergy, but a task for all of us. We can learn from the Holy Father’s visit to the United States, which each day was marked by moments of encounter, when he reached out to those so in need of light. Maybe you don’t visit men in prison, as the Holy Father did, but how often do you meet people imprisoned by fear, loneliness, or sin? Maybe your daily life doesn’t bring you face-to-face with the homeless, but how often do we meet those who find themselves searching for love or a place to feel safe? As Cardinal Tagle reminded those of us at the World Meeting of Families, “You may have a big, big beautiful house and still be homeless. A home is not measured by acres … a home is the gift of a loving presence.”
Christ did not proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven through social media or newspapers, nor did He ever tell His Apostles to simply write what they had heard and pass it around. He went out, touching and encountering. He sent his Apostles out, to preach and heal and encounter. He sends us out to accompany, to speak, to encounter.
As I watched the Holy Father drive through the city streets, I saw a man yearning to encounter souls and I saw souls who did not know how to be encountered. Consumed by the desire to capture the moment, they were losing the precious opportunity to enjoy the gift of presence. The Pope was not an object to be captured on film, but a person to be met. How often do I miss the person in need of encounter because I see them as an object to be classified, a person to fit nicely in a box? How often do I miss the chance to accompany someone because I am wrapped up in my iPhone or my social media feeds, wanting to document life rather than live it? Do I encounter the other? Do I let myself be encountered?
As Francis told the people gathered in Madison Square Garden for Mass, “Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness, and brings us to the school of encounter. … God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities. God and the Church living in our cities want to be like yeast in the dough, to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, proclaiming the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Do not be afraid to touch, to preach, to encounter. Do not be afraid to bring the message of Christ to those so in need of freedom, of life. Your neighbors, your coworkers, your family—they need to encounter Christ, and He is asking to encounter them through you.