Spreading Christ beyond the parish boundaries

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

Jack Jezreel of Louisville admits something up front.

“I will not hide this,” he says with a smile. “I am a Pope Francis groupie.”

The Catholic social justice evangelist from Louisville, Kentucky, came to New Orleans last week to offer a workshop on Catholic thought, prayer and action, and in his mind, if the three don’t burst out of the relatively safe boundaries of the parish, then, really, what’s the point?

Before Vatican II, Jezreel said, people naturally “came to associate their Catholicism with how often and how committed they were to the parish block.”
He said that changed after the Second Vatican Council, which suggested that ministry should happen “everywhere.”

“One way that is expressed is that at the end of liturgy, there’s this theologically sublime and spiritually potent word, and that is ‘Go!’” Jezreel said. “Not ‘Go, we’ve prayed long enough,’ and not ‘Go, it’s time to vacuum,’ but it’s ‘Go’ as in the definition of what needs to happen next in terms of our faith. It’s ‘Go, and minister to the world. Take what you have received here and bring it into the world and be a healing presence.’”

Jezreel founded JustFaith Ministries in 2001 to spread that message of faith in action, and since then, he has engaged 60,000 people and 1,500 parishes across the country. At its core, the message of JustFaith is that it is almost impossible to think about faith “apart from its public expression and public engagement.”

And, yes, that means Catholics getting involved in the messy sausage-making of politics.

“Our faith is necessarily political and economic, for that matter, and it has a particular political and economic bias to it,” Jezreel said. “One way to talk about that bias is that every life is precious. That’s an anchor of our faith, but it’s also an anchor of our politics. Any political expression that is faith-derived or faith-inspired is going to be a political expression that takes in the whole and is constantly attentive to the common good and the dignity of every human life.”

The particular attention of Catholic faith in the political realm, Jezreel said, should be the church’s “option for the poor.”

“We’re always trying to look for the underdog, because they’re the ones who should not get left behind,” Jezreel said. “We have this constant orientation to be looking at the bottom of things to make sure that everybody’s being taken care of. We are at our best as a community when we are constantly paying attention to those near the bottom and then engage in political conversations that emphasize care for those who’ve been left behind, discouraged or distressed.”

Count among those who are discouraged today the vast number of faithful Catholics – lay, ordained and religious – who have been disillusioned and angered by the scandal of clerical sex abuse.

As bad as that crisis is, Jezreel says he is deeply concerned by the political fault lines that seem to be creating camps within the church that seek to ridicule or even tear down the other side.

“I feel a lot of distress in a way that I’ve never felt distress,” Jezreel said. “Sure, I have felt anxiety and disappointment over the years, but I admit I have never felt this kind of worry about the people inside the community called Catholic – who claim Jesus as a common savior – not being nice to each other. I wonder if we won’t have to have some kind of public reconciliation where we simply apologize to each other.

“It’s tough times for Catholics. Tough times.”

Jezreel finds hope in the way in which Pope Francis is serving as a role model of Jesus.

“What is interesting to me about Pope Francis is that I think he is the first pope that I know of, at least in my lifetime – and I have respect for the papacy, period – who has been a role model,” Jezreel said. “Our popes have been leaders and they’ve been teachers. I don’t know of anyone who has been a better Christian role model.

“Here we have Francis, who not only talks the talk but behaves. So, the minute he gets off a plane, he goes straight to the prison. Then he goes straight to the slum. In my mind, he has actually altered the expectations of the papacy. I feel bad for the next guy because what he’s suggesting is that the pope is not just teacher, not just a leader, but the pope is actually the model of holiness.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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