By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Go ahead and love Pope Francis all you want. But be sure you love the church even more.
That was the advice of Father Sunoj Thomas, a Benedictine priest and native of India who is now in residence at St. Thomas More Parish, and Father Jeffrey Stephan, pastor of St. Sabina Parish in Belton, to diocesan teachers at the annual Education Ministry Formation day at Archbishop O’Hara High School.
“I love Pope Francis, but he is our leader. We are all church. We are all on a faith journey,” Father Thomas said.
“If the pope becomes our faith, then we are missing the point. He is telling all of us, ‘Here is Jesus Christ. Here is where we need to go. Don’t look at me. Look at Jesus,’” he said.
Father Thomas was in Rome when the Conclave of Cardinals elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, and he chose the name “Pope Francis” in honor of the humble St. Francis of Assisi.
The scene in St. Peter’s Square when the election was announced was right out of Pentecost Sunday, Father Thomas said.
“People who speak different languages were singing the ‘Ave Maria’ and praying for the cardinals to choose the right person to lead the church. It was raining, but we didn’t care. We went to pray for the church,” Father Thomas said.
“When they announced his name, the immediate reaction was, ‘Who is this?’” he recalled. “Then they announced he would take the name, ‘Francis.’ Suddenly, the crowd took that name into their hearts and began shouting, ‘Viva Papa!’”
Both priests told the teachers that much has been written and spoken in the media that Pope Francis is leading the church in a completely different direction.
But those who say that haven’t really been paying attention, the priests said. In fact, Pope Francis is in many ways continuing to build on the foundation set by his predecessors, especially that of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
“Pope Benedict bought the lute. Pope Francis tuned it, and we the people are now enjoying the music,” Father Thomas said. “Now we are hearing a beautiful song.”
It is a song that is taking the church out of its buildings and into the streets, and particularly to the poor, Father Stephan said.
“Pope Benedict actually set the frame for all things Pope Francis is doing,” he said.
“He wants to put the whole focus of the church to be a missionary church, going out and being with the people in the streets,” Father Stephan said.
“Pope Francis tells us that if our faith doesn’t lead us into the streets, then what good is it?” Father Stephan said.
Soon after his election, Pope Francis led by example. On Holy Thursday, he visited a prison for juvenile offenders and washed the feet of the children incarcerated there, including the feet of a Muslim girl.
“That was the first time that has ever been done,” Father Stephan said.
His first trip outside the Vatican was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. There he tossed flowers into the sea and prayed for the thousands of immigrants who drowned trying to sail from Africa to Europe in search of a better life.
“Pope Francis says that we as Catholics don’t care what country you come from, or whether or not you have documents. We are going to minister to you,” Father Stephan said.
“That angered a lot of Italians, and we are having that argument in the United States,” he said.
In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis decried increasing income inequality in which the global wealth is concentrated in fewer hands and never seems to reach the poor.
That enraged some pundits in the United States who accused the pope of socialism.
“I don’t think they read it,” Father Stephan said of the pope’s critics.
“This is exactly what Pope Benedict was saying — that the economy should serve the people, and people should not serve the economy,” he said.
“Pope Francis has a lot to say, but it’s nothing new that the church hasn’t been preaching about,” he said.
Father Thomas added that Pope Francis’ message is essentially one of joy.
“Christ is the joy in our life,” he said. “If you are happy, you can share it. If you are not, you cannot share it. So feel the joy and share it.”
That message was driven home to the priest by a St. Thomas More family who invited Father Thomas to dinner.
Before eating, each family member was invited to say something good about another member of the family.
When they were done, one of the girls offered this prayer to God: “I want to thank you for giving me a beautiful church,” she prayed.
“She learned that from her family,” Father Thomas said. “For her, the church was her family, and she shared it. And that is what we are all supposed to do.”