By Provincial Father Thomas J. Ascheman
An old joke from Italy has a new punch line: Why did Mary and Joseph travel by donkey to Bethlehem? Because Mary lent her Fiat to Pope Francis to go to America.
A remarkable image from the visit of Pope Francis to the United States was the modest automobile that carried him from place to place. Sandwiched between huge SUVs carrying security personnel and dignitaries, the pope waved to the people from the back seat of the Fiat 500L.
The Pope’s arrival at the White House was memorable. Many politicians, celebrities, diplomats and business leaders have arrived there in fabulous, long limousines. Francis drove up in a Fiat. I was reminded that Jesus entered Jerusalem mounted on a donkey as a prince of peace, not as a conquering king riding a war horse.
There is another kind of “fiat.” Dictators and demagogues rule by fiat when they bellow out: “Let it be done – because I say so!” This kind of fiat ignores listening, refuses to respect others, and forces inhuman solutions.
Francis came visiting with a “fiat” like Mary’s. She said, “Let it be done to me,” and the Word of God took on flesh within her. Francis also gives himself away to the will of God, and we can see Jesus’ presence in him. By his speeches to the powerful and the lowly; his handshakes for political leaders, embraces for well-wishers, kisses for babies and smiles for everyone, people can sense something remarkable.
He spoke of the need for commitment to immigration, care for the environment, religious liberty, and the protection of life, especially the poor. In our polarized political environment, he shared clear and challenging ideas rooted in the Gospels. He didn’t push people away nor aggravate our political divisions. Francis, like Mary, has given his fiat; and the Word of God dwells among us.
Is there a message in this for us? I think Francis modeled a way to be missionary in North America. He did not shy from talking about the major challenges of our day. In the midst of controversy, he stayed open for dialogue, rooted in solidarity, respect and love. This is what we SVDs call “prophetic dialogue.”
He reached out to everyone. People got excited about his visit, even those who didn’t expect to be. Whether they were believers or not, they could sense something exceptional in this visitor from Rome. He asked people to pray for him. Then he added, “If you are not a believer, then just wish me well!” People laughed.
He thanked people for their contributions to mission. During the vespers at the cathedral in New York City, he mentioned his gratitude to the religious sisters who have given much to building up the Church and U.S. culture. The response of the people was heartfelt, sustained, thunderous applause. That moment helped to heal some wounds from the recent past.
The goodness and kindness of God, evident in the visit of the pope is the same goodness and kindness that we propose to make evident in our missionary life and service. We are willing to engage with everyone by reaching out in dialogue. Although our days may be busy, we can stop the motorcade of our lives to reach out to someone on the margin, to people who are rejected because of ethnic animosity, to those imprisoned or sick, to those of other religious traditions, to those who are hungry or lacking education.
We can pull over to give comfort, to encourage, to recognize Jesus’ presence in those who dwell on the frontiers of faith and the margins of society. Last week we could glimpse God’s Kingdom smiling at us through the window of a Fiat. So let it be done in us, just as it is being done in Francis, and has been done in so many others since Mary first made herself the vessel of the coming of the Lord.
Divine Word Father Thomas Ascheman is provincial superior of the Chicago Province, one of the Society of the Divine Word’s most culturally diverse provinces. A missionary for almost 40 years, he has worked on the grassroots level in the barrios of Mexico, as well as in the highest administrative body of the Society of the Divine Word in Rome. While serving as Generalate mission secretary, he worked closely with leaders to plan and coordinate the order’s missionary and humanitarian endeavors in more than 70 countries.