By John Paul Lichon
Founder, Verso Ministries
I stand in Błonia Park beneath the B4 communications tower, my neck crooked forward, titling to one side, like the grass in early morning arcing towards the sun. All of my attention, all of my being, is hanging onto the words of a mysterious translator – unseen, but certainly not unappreciated. One word. Followed by a long pause. Then another phrase. Pause. Finally a whole sentence. Clapping. Cheering. A triumphant, “Viva il papa!”
As Pope Francis deliberately continues, the translator on the radio follows his pace. Slowly. Intentionally. As if each word was prayed over one by one, purposefully crafted before it is lifted off the page and careened into the damp, night air. Although I have had the blessing to hear Pope Francis speak before, this is the first time I’ve ever been able to understand him, and I am struck by how different the experience is.
Looking around, I see pilgrims of every age, shade, dimension, and personality. Flags erected on makeshift poles gently being guided back and forth, back and forth. Pilgrims from Cambodia, France, Australia, Mexico, Nigeria, Ireland, Bolivia, Chile, the US. Countless countries I had never even heard of. Every corner of the globe is gathered on the western edge of Kraków to welcome the Pope for World Youth Day 2016.
Little do all these pilgrims know, but on this night, Pope Francis is speaking directly to me.
About ten days earlier I was sending final reminders to the students I was leading on pilgrimage to Poland. Bring your passport. Call your credit card company. For the love of God don’t pack too much stuff. And most importantly, don’t forget to bring along your prayer intention. I could really care less about your stuff, if you forgot it you could buy it. But your prayer? Only you could bring your prayers.
Clicking send, I came to the immediate realization that I had yet to think of my own prayer intention. Classic ministerial conundrum. Never want to be a hypocrite, but damned if I was being a hypocrite again. This is the joy of the Christian life, I thought. Easy to tell people how to live it, not so easy to listen to your own advice.
About this time, I was coming to terms with acknowledging my own restlessness in my work. This uneasiness had largely gone ignored for the previous few months, despite some red flags seen in hindsight. In recent weeks, I had started paying more attention to the random job opportunities that inevitably had come across my desk. I had a few urgent conversations about workload, job expectations, and professional growth. Most significantly, I had this crazy idea that I couldn’t get out of my head – the dream to start my own pilgrimage company.
Pilgrimage ministry was only part of my job in college campus ministry, but it often consumed a lot of my brain space. I enjoyed everything about pilgrimage work – brainstorming holy sites, uncovering inspirational stories, planning the nitty-gritty details, and then sitting back to watch young people encounter these sacred sites and stories. Over the years, I had always joked about doing pilgrimage work full time. “Wouldn’t it be fun?” I would dream with friends, “to lead pilgrimages year-round? Travel all over the world, enjoy the world’s most holy sites, lead people to Jesus?” I would fantasize for hours if they would let me, thinking of the infinite, untapped places simply awaiting a pilgrim’s footsteps. “God is everywhere,” I would tell them. “You can literally go on pilgrimage anywhere!” It was fun to daydream, but I never seriously considered actually doing it.
Upon sending the World Youth Day email to my students, these vocational questions flooded my heart and mind. Outwardly, all the pros of my current job were there – the ability to mentor faithful and talented students, the security of a steady income and terrific benefits, supportive collaboration with exceptional colleagues, a family-friendly work schedule with needed flexibility, and ministries I truly enjoyed. But interiorly, it wasn’t all adding up. I simply couldn’t get this outrageous pilgrimage idea out of my head.
So it was settled. I’ll pray about my future, I decided.
About five football fields away, Pope Francis is moving towards us to speak. To me, he looks like an albino ant shuffling forward in his definitive white vestments. He is standing under the shadow of a very large and dominating replica of Jesus as portrayed in the image of Divine Mercy. There’s no way Jesus actually looked like that, I think to myself, as I inspect his Yanni-esque hair accentuated with a burgeoning, hipster beard. But as Pope Francis finally approaches the microphone, all else melts away.
After a few obligatory pleasantries, Pope Francis cuts right to the chase.
“It is disturbing to see young people squandering some of the best years of their lives, wasting their energies running after peddlers of false illusions…who rob you of what is best in you,” he says. “There are young people that have gone into retirement, who have thrown in the towel before the game has even begun.”
Instantly, I am reminded of a recent conversation. “You know, my job isn’t perfect,” I had told a close friend. “But you can’t beat the benefits for my family.” I listed all the positives of my job – flexible schedule, summer break, steady income, the security of it all. “I couldn’t agree more,” she had swiftly affirmed, and that was that.
But now, standing here in the park, confidence in those claims was beginning to dissolve. Were those actually false illusions? Were these benefits truly making me happy? Was there something else out there? I lean in a little closer as Pope Francis continues.
“To find fulfillment…to gain new life,” he asserts, his words becoming more deliberate and calculated with each passing phrase. “There is a way.”
Ok, I know where this is going, I’ve heard this before, I think to myself. But this time, the words sound different. Full of movement, of life, of truth. This doesn’t seem to be a mundane, dismissible reminder. These words are pushing me somewhere.
“A way that is not for sale…that cannot be purchased…a way that is not a thing or an object…but a person.” Silence falls over the park during one last, dramatic pause. Jesus, of course, I think to myself.
“His name is Jesus Christ.”
As Pope Francis completes his thought, cheers erupt from the crowd as chills run down my spine. Jesus’ words echo in my mind, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” All of these words slip under my goosebumps and flow through my body, and I pray they find a home in the depths of my soul.
“Jesus can give you true passion for life. Jesus can inspire us not to settle for less, but to give the very best of ourselves. Jesus challenges us, spurs us on and helps us keep trying whenever we are tempted to give up. Jesus pushes us to keep our sights high and to dream of great things. You might say to me, ‘but Father, it is so difficult to dream of great things, it is so difficult to rise up, to be always moving forwards and upwards. Father, I am weak, I fall, and I try but so many times I fall down.’”
By now, the crowd has faded entirely into the recesses of my mind. I feel as if I’m personally conversing with Pope Francis, yet I haven’t done any of the talking. Somehow, Pope Francis has put words to feelings I didn’t even realize I had.
Yes, this is exactly how I feel! Lord, I am tired and weak, I pray. I suddenly realize that I have settled. I have set my sights low. I have stayed on my current path because it’s been good enough. But has good enough really been good enough?
Pope Francis continues, “Mountaineers, as they climb mountains, sing a very beautiful song whose words go like this: ‘in the art of climbing, it is not important that you do not fall down, but that you do not stay down.’”
With this, I realize that not only have I fallen down, but I’ve told myself it’s ok to stay down. To be complacent where I am.
For the past few weeks, this idea of starting my own business had turned from irrational fantasy to actual possibility. To this day, I cannot pinpoint as to why, how, or when this switch occurred. But the aspiration to start my pilgrimage ministry was certainly aggravatingly present, despite my best attempts to thwart it. “Why not?” my wife had repeatedly asked me. For weeks, I had so many sensible reasons why not.
“How much money would I actually make? Certainly nothing for at least a year or two. Plus we’d have to invest some of our own money to get it going,” I would remind her. “Do you know how much time and energy it takes to run a start-up? And you realize I’ve never taken a business class in your life, right? What if in 6 months or a year it completely falls apart? Then what?” The defenses slipped off the tongue without a second thought.
But deep down, in this life-changing moment with Pope Francis, I finally name the real excuse lurking under all the rest – fear. You’ve been discerning your life’s path through fear, I realize.
“If you are weak, if you fall, look up a little for there is Jesus’ hand extended to you as he says: ‘Rise up, come with me,’” Pope Francis says. “‘And what if I fall again?’ Rise again. ‘And what if I fall yet again?’ Rise yet again. Peter once asked the Lord: ‘Lord, how many times?’ And the reply came: ‘seventy times seven.’ The hand of Jesus is always extended, ready to lift us up again when we fall. Do you understand?”
Yes, now I understand. As Pope Francis finishes, I again inspect the image of Divine Mercy towering over all. I’m quickly reminded of the image’s central message – trust. Trust, the opposite of fear. What if I made my decisions out of trust? I ask Jesus. Where will you lead me?
With naive confidence, I pray. Jesus, I trust in You.
And for the first time in who knows how long, my heart is at peace. I’m going to start a pilgrimage business.