PRINCE ALBERT — Speaker Matt Halbach chose Pope Francis and the Church of Mercy as his theme for the annual spring Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) meeting on April 2 in Prince Albert.
Halbach is an assistant professor at the Felician University, a Franciscan university in New Jersey where he teaches history and heritage in the Catholic Church and sacramental theology for religious educators. He received his PhD in religious education and catechetics from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is currently director of the St. Joseph Educational Center in Des Moines, Iowa, where he develops and co-ordinates adult faith formation events and curriculums for regional parishes and works with other faith formation co-ordinators.
His book, Building a Parish of Mercy, will be published by in July. The book offers specifics for small groups and parishes to reflect together on how they can exhibit attitudes and actions of mercy within their sphere of influence.
Almost 200 representatives from parishes across the diocese travelled to listen and participate in the day’s sessions and activities.
Halbach described Pope Francis as an ice breaker who has done so much in so little time, reaching across denominational and religious lines, making it safe to have difficult, frank discussions about the Catholic faith and its role in the world today.
“When I see him, words that come to mind are sincere, authentic and humble. It endears me to him. A man not standing on a perch, trying to be higher. I feel like he’s with me, next to me.”
As an ice breaker, each table of mixed parish representatives was asked to share its descriptions of Pope Francis. Impressions included “ordinary,” “down to earth,” “bringing hope to the poor,” “answers hard questions,” “non-judgmental,” “straightforward,” “welcoming,” “father figure,” “always joyful” and “radiates Christ.”
Halbach felt that Pope Francis “gets” the human experience. In a homily given to newlyweds, Pope Francis spoke on some of the dynamics of married life. He said it’s a struggle and a sacrifice, and the dishes are going to fly, “That’s OK, because what matters is, are you going to clean up the mess together?”
Halbach shared his love for the writings of Pope Francis; for example, the exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. He expressed his delight that the magisterial document included the colloquial “sourpuss.”
“We need that kind of talk. It’s the kind a father would give.”
He shared the story of the newly elected pope asking a Swiss guard stationed outside his room if he would like a chair or something to eat. The guard said no, he would get into trouble. Pope Francis brought him food and a chair anyway. The guard was adamant that he couldn’t. So the pope asked him who he was going to get into trouble with: “I’m the pope.”
“Can you imagine the impact on the guard’s life?” asked Halbach. “Do you think he will ever forget that moment? It breaks protocol, boundaries and tradition. Sometimes we need to break from the norm in order to grow and experience God’s love. The papacy is structured; there is a protocol for every possible scenario. To be so ‘off the cuff’ with God’s love and mercy is a wonderful thing. Francis is unconventional in his attire and leadership. He doesn’t walk in front of people, he walks alongside them, he is a fellow sojourner. He has asked everyone in the church to learn the art of accompaniment. How do we accompany each other as Christians? How do we walk with each other on our faith journeys?”
He described Pope Francis’ style of evangelization as accompanying people, not converting them; he is interested in where a person is in that moment and he is conscious of who needs to be for them. He is promoting a merciful church, crafting it to what he wants it to be.
“What does the church need to be, then, if we’re all in the same boat? Should we be about rules and regulations? Theology? Service? Mercy? Care-giving? It’s not just the church taking care of the world, because everyone’s in the same boat, it’s the church trying to take care of herself, and the evangelization that needs to happen from within that comes through care and accompaniment, giving people what they need here and now, to help them take another step on their faith journey.”
Halbach asked the crowd how they felt when someone opened a door for them.
“Think about times in your life that things opened for you? Pope Francis says the church, sacraments, eucharist, all need to be open doors. We need to discern and study where the barriers are in our church.”
Halbach approached difficult subjects with mercy, saying “building a church of mercy takes small steps with great love.” He explained mercy as an orientation toward and for the good of the other, and that includes forgiveness of self and others, and is the way of holiness and perfection.
Using the parable of the prodigal son, he uses the example of the father who broke out the wine and robes before an apology was heard.
“Mercy is pro-active; it doesn’t wait for an apology. It is lavish and generous. Mercy is messy, it can divide.” He repeated Jesus’ words from the Bible: “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
He spoke of mercy as the face of the Father, incarnate in Jesus, the work of the church and the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters. Mercy avoids judgements and condemnation, judging actions and hearts.
Bishop Albert Thévenot, M. Afr., ended the meeting, admitting sometimes change can be scary.
“We need time for conversation and sharing what is precious for us all, our faith: big or small, brave or not. It’s your gift. It was put into your hearts at your baptism to grow. I never saw a farmer transplanting full grown plants. We plant small seeds. We need to learn to give them time and have patience, we all need time for growth. A farmer doesn’t plant today and harvest tomorrow. He knows that growth doesn’t come from him, it comes from God.”
Thévenot compared the church to a field hospital. He asked the crowd who they thought was the patient, nurse or caretaker. He explained that through the experiences of life, we are the doctors.
“We need one another for that hospital. The battle is there, we have been challenged and we might get hurt, but you will continue, because we are encouraging and supporting one another in our faith. Serving and listening: how do you listen?”
Recognizing Christ in others, he said, is where catechesis begins. When a conversation on faith begins, we should begin where people are at, not where we want them to be.
“Let us live out our baptismal promise, our commitment we re-made at Easter. Say, ‘Yes. I do!’ What does it mean to say yes? How are you living that ‘I do’?”