I never got closer than a football field to Pope Francis when he visited Washington D.C., but it was enough to be around all the people who had also come out to be as close as we could to the pope. My friend from church spotted me and ran over to pray together, I exchanged names with a pair of beaming nuns, so I could pray for them, and they for me.
Even as the visit drew to a close, I still had the sense of being invited into the lives of other Catholics. I was traveling back from New York City on the last southbound train of the night, when I noticed a slightly lost group trying to make sense of the big board in the Amtrak station. I helped them find their train, and then took a guess as to why a group of out-of-towners would be passing through so late at night.
“Going to Philadelphia for the Pope?”
They were, so I figured I’d take one more chance.
“Would you like to pray a Hail Mary with me while we wait?”
It’s usually the kind of question I only ask habited religious, because I figure that they’ve signed up to be bothered for prayers, but the Philly-bound group said yes. Before our train boarded, they made sure I took some of their water for my own trip, and told me they’d never gotten to pray with a stranger before.
Any other Saturday night, I might technically be able to pray with a stranger, but I wouldn’t have known how to ask. The papal visit drew people out, and made it easy to disclose our faith to each other. It felt like a much more joyful and communal version of the annual Catholic Census that happens on every Ash Wednesday.
I might notice the smudges on my coworkers’ foreheads but I don’t start conversations. The somber, sin-focused nature of the day makes it hard to imagine introducing myself and asking someone to coffee or to pray for me. It just means that, for a day, the Catholic-heavy demographics of my city become visible to me.
Now that the visit has come to an end, I want to do more with the people who surround me. I want to find a way to live up to what Pope Francis said in his canonization Mass for Saint Junipero Serra, when he spoke of the way that we are all called to extend Serra’s missionary work, and the dangers of refusing our calling.
The Church, the holy People of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters. The holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into élites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure, in all the many forms it takes, is the cause of so much apathy.
Self-enclosure generates and is generated by apathy. I wind up enclosed when I make myself invisible to other Catholics and let them remain invisible to me. I see other people as Catholics at Mass, or at talks at local Catholic bookstores, but, once we leave those special, scheduled places, our religion tends to become private again.
It’s a little easier to fight this kind of pinched-in privacy with friends. A couple of times, my friends and I have prayed Night Office while walking home, just as simply as we might sing show tunes. We’re doing something we love together, sharing our joy with each other and with anyone who overhears us and might want to join in.
But I’d like to do more, and avoid relinquishing all the people I met glancingly this week. I want what Theo Hobson describes in Reinventing Liberal Christianity:
Perhaps the medieval feast of Corpus Christi should be the churches’ model: worship should spill out from churches into the streets and nurture busy amateur creativity. Why hasn’t this sort of thing happened to any large extent? There remains a strange failure to notice that religious worship is the highest possible state of cultural creativity and also, dare one say, of grown-up fun.
Parishes that hold processions are one way to take to the dusty roads and bring our faith everywhere. For individuals, praying in public, alone, or with a few friends is a way of making it possible for someone else to join in. As for me, after the pope was gone for good, I put up a notice on my apartment’s bulletin board, asking if anyone wanted to pray Morning Office before work.
After walking through the crowds, I have a little more faith there’s someone who might be waiting for me to ask, and who might have something to ask me in return.
Leah Libresco is a blogger for Patheos and works as a statistician in Washington, DC. Her first, recently published book is called Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.