On Thursday evening a capacity crowd of nearly 25,000 people filled the newly restored interior of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York, not for a holy day Mass or even for an ordinary daily Mass, but for a prayer that — as cathedral rector Msgr. Robert Ritchie emphasized in his introductory remarks — countless clergy, religious and even laity pray in small groups or alone several times a day every day of the year: the Liturgy of the Hours, specifically Evening Prayer, or Vespers.
It was, of course, Pope Francis, coming straight from Washington, DC via JFK Airport for his first-ever appearance in New York, that brought the crowds there. The trappings were far from ordinary: long parade of cardinals, bishops, auxiliary bishops and various other ministers, musical support from the Saint Patrick's Cathedral Choir and so forth. Still, the prayer was the same prayer that any Catholic can pray alone in the privacy of his or her home any evening of the week.
That's important, because it gives us a glimpse of a side of Francis we don't often see. We see a lot of Francis the "people's pope," photogenically connecting with his flock in touching ways, and of Francis the prophet, using dramatic language and vivid metaphors to highlight issues ranging from environmentalism and economic injustice to marriage and the sanctity of life.
Any of these sides of Francis can easily become a symbol of everything that we think is variously right or wrong with the Church — and, in fairness, being a symbol is part of the pope's job description. One danger of reducing Francis to a symbol, though, is that he's more complicated than that, and in reducing him to a symbol we can miss out on or elide aspects of his message that don't fit the pattern.
At times the endless analysis of the pope's public words can resemble the way economists hang on every word from the Federal Reserve, scrutinizing every nuance for any hint about what will happen with interest rates. Did he mention or allude to divorce? Religious freedom? The abuse scandal? Which interest groups got a bone? Who was snubbed?
Instead of a shepherd offering words of spiritual guidance, his comments are reduced to "signals" on a range of hot-button topics. These signals then become headlines, and perhaps eventually social-media memes, which are leading ways too many people consume information these days. Meanwhile, anything deeper the pope might have been trying to say is lost in the shuffle.
For pope watchers looking for a signal, the obvious moment came late in Francis' homily as he was interrupted three or four times while expressing gratitude to the women religious of America for their prayers, work and sacrifice on behalf of the Church.
"Where would the Church be without you?" he asked in Spanish ("¿Qué sería de la Iglesia sin ustedes?") while his words were displayed in English translation on screens throughout the cathedral. (Francis stuck closely to his prepared text, except for a few early words addressed to Muslims expressing solidarity and assuring prayers in the wake of the tragedy in Mecca — a reference to a stampede that killed over 700 and injured thousands during the hajj pilgrimage on the holy day of Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice.)
"Women of strength, fighters," Francis continued, "with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say 'thank you,' a big thank you…and to tell you that I love you very much."
These words can easily be interpreted — as perhaps the repeated applause suggests — as a gesture intended to help mend fences between the Vatican and women religious in America following the completion earlier this year of a several-year Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
If Pope Francis wanted to send a signal on this front, he succeeded. (Certainly there were plenty of women religious there to hear his message, some LCWR, some not — including one relatively young order, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, from Francis' native country of Argentina.)
If you're looking for a headline (or a social media meme), there it is. But Francis had a great deal more to say that doesn't easily reduce to hot-button signals.
The pope opened his homily with a reference to the Cathedral itself, "built up over many years through the sacrifices of many men and women." Echoing the divine commission to his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, whom God told to "rebuild my Church," Pope Francis' remarks pointed beyond Saint Patrick's Cathedral, which he described as a symbol for "the work of generations of American priests and religious, and lay faithful who built up the Church in the United States." (Citing Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann, he particularly highlighted the contributions of priests and religious in the field of education, anticipating his later comments to women religious.)
Reiterating themes from his address to the American bishops in Washington, DC, the pope spoke of gratitude, challenges and hard work. To the bishops Francis emphasized his own gratitude for what has been accomplished in and by the Church in America; addressing the masses at Saint Patrick's, the pope called on all Catholics to be grateful for all that we have received: "It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received... and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way."
The pope's pivot from the theme of gratitude to hard work might have been glossed with the words "To whom much is given, much is required":
A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.
Francis then went on to talk about challenges and temptations that weaken our willingness to commit to hard work for the Lord, such as jealousy for our free time.
Clearly Pope Francis recognizes that one of the challenges facing the Church today is fewer hands being burdened with more work, and in particular fewer priests and religious doing the kinds of work that priests and religious have always done.
There are obvious ways to connect this problem to hot-button issues: married clergy, traditional orders, women priests, seminary reform, etc. But Francis didn't do any of that, even by implication.
In his Vespers homily, as he did speaking to the American bishops, he issued a call not for ideological change, but for moral conversion. Instead of focusing on problems with the system and how to change it, we need to focus on what a precious gift we have in our Church, and all that we owe to it, and to those whose hard work we owe the gifts we have received — and on our own obligation to work hard to pass on these gifts to others.
Needless to say, these aren't the kind of themes that make headlines or pass into social media memes. If we want to hear what Francis really has to say, we need to work a little harder.