Seeking the Frontiers with Pope Francis

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville
President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Archbishop Kurtz (left), who is vice chancellor of Catholic Extension, reveals his favorite parts of Pope Francis’ exhortation and describes how Catholic Extension’s missionary spirit fulfills our Holy Father’s vision.

Missionary adventure and frontiers go together, and so do Pope Francis and the Catholic Church Extension Society. In fact, all four are woven together to form a fabric that is essential to announcing the good news of Jesus Christ.

It’s no surprise that Pope Francis has truly captured Americans’ hearts. He is living the Gospel and calling all to “go out” by seeing first the person and walking with that person toward Christ. He regularly writes about frontiers and not sitting at home alone.

Opening doors and hearts emerge as Pope Francis’ favorite images. About a year before his election as pope, he wrote a message in preparation for the Year of Faith in Argentina. In this message, he mourned the many doors so tightly closed from fear and called for unlocking the doors to our hearts. He used the image of unlocking hearts again forcefully in his January 1 World Day of Peace message, in which he quoted Pope Emeritus Benedict in stating that “globalization makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers.” It shrinks the world and at the same time our hearts. His message recalled Cain’s selfish question in Genesis 4:9, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and Pope Francis boldly proclaims that we are responsible! Open the door of your heart, and let the Church heal wounds and warm hearts through you.

The words of Pope Francis shake our roots by their direct, vivid, plain and yet very challenging qualities. Just think of his recent lament that we pay great attention to a two-point change in the stock market while the tragic death of a homeless man on the street goes unnoticed. Small wonder that many say he sounds like Jesus. How can we not hear the parable of the rich man with the poor starving Lazarus at the door?

Pope Francis is calling for change big and small, but most of all, change or conversion in each of us. He reminds me of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. When she was asked where in the world to begin, she pointed to herself and the speaker: “With you and me,” she said softly but firmly.

I highly recommend a full reading of his new apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. It reads more like a homily that challenges and exhorts rather than as a formal treatise. Some of my favorite lines include:

  • “Though it is true that this mission demands great generosity on our part, it would be wrong to see it as a heroic individual undertaking, for it is first and foremost the Lord’s work…” (n.12) Being a disciple of Jesus is within the reach of each of us.
  • We need to be like “a mother with an open heart” (n. 46).
  • Rejecting mediocrity and calling for creativity, he calls us to be “…Spirit-filled evangelizers… (proclaiming) by a life transfigured by God’s presence” (n. 259). These words reflect a serene confidence…echoes of the Synod on the New Evangelization.
  • We are to “stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!” (n. 261)
  • "The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart" (n. 264).
  • Finally and most importantly in joy we are to announce the good news of Jesus together (n. 268).

The senior delegates from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops enjoy their audience with Pope Francis during their annual visit to the Curia in October 2013. Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D., Archbishop of Louisville, (center left) and His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, (center right) are flanked by the other officers.

In a recent Knights of Columbus video, Francis: The Pope from the New World, I was struck by Pope Francis’ attention to his own faith journey. He locates major changes in his life with his reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“After making my confession, I felt something had changed,” he states. “I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.” In another interview, when asked to define himself, he humbly states: “I am a sinner.” He is a Pope who will never ask another to do what he does not first take onto his own shoulders. He is not shy, however, in calling for conversion. In the Knights of Columbus video he states emphatically: “When we forget our brothers who are suffering, we’re sowing a seed of violence.”

Pope Francis has had a great effect on the priorities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. When asked about my priorities as president of the Conference for the next three years, I easily pointed to the pastoral themes so dear to Pope Francis – work that I had assisted Cardinal Dolan in doing these past three years. We are striving to live out the new evangelization by announcing the good news of Jesus Christ in its entirety – to follow Jesus in worship and service; to work in and out of season to stand with immigrants, the unborn and the poor; and to work for the religious freedom that protects our ministries’ abilities to do this vital ministry.

Announcing the good news of Jesus, serving the voiceless and the vulnerable, seeking the religious freedom in our land and throughout the world – none of this is new to Catholic Extension. Now in its second century of service, Catholic Extension has literally “extended” the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the presence of His Church to the frontiers of society – all the while serving the spiritual needs of all and seeking to serve the whole person in dignity.

Frontiers appeal to the adventure of the missionary. Take Saints Peter and Paul. Both Peter and Paul reached the frontier of Rome, but with multiple journeys. One hundred years ago, Father Francis Clement Kelley eventually made it to Oklahoma as a bishop. On the way, he made Catholic Extension a byword with frontiers and the faith of the Church. Had he lived today, he surely would have his eyes on the new frontiers – maybe even outer space!

Pope Francis wants to clothe us in the spirit of Peter and Paul and Father Kelley – which is the spirit of Jesus. Be missionaries, he tells us! Go out! Find the person forgotten on the outskirts, the periphery – the frontier. By Christ’s grace, see the face of Jesus in that person and joyfully announce the good news of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis admits this will take sacrifice but knows of its importance as a struggle for the common good of our world family, beginning with the forgotten, and a struggle on our journey to heaven. The two are intimately connected.

Missionary adventure and frontiers go together, and so do Pope Francis and Catholic Church Extension Society. Every gift to Catholic Extension is a missionary action that stretches us to today’s frontiers. No one can become a zealous missionary for Christ without his or her life and frontier being changed. As Paul said, “I live, no, not I, Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Join Pope Francis on the frontier. Learn of the work of Catholic Extension in this magazine, give generously, and live on the frontier.