When I was a young Jesuit Volunteer, the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, where I taught school for three years, was served by Jesuit priests. The diocese was vast but sparsely populated, and many of the Jesuits were pilots who flew to villages not on a road system.
Our boarding school, a Jesuit hub, served mainly Yupik Eskimos. There were no roads in and out of our village of St. Mary’s, save for a dirt road that led to the airport where a landing strip accommodated jets two or three times a week.
The Jesuits, of course, flew mostly single-engine planes, and they could land on the little strip right outside the mission’s main building, which ran along the Andreafsky River. In the winter, however, the frozen river itself could become the landing strip if need be.
So it was one November, when my mother and a friend decided to visit St. Mary’s, quite the journey for two Midwesterners.
Mom was scheduled to come in on the jet from Anchorage. But as so often happened in the bush, weather intervened, and the jet only went as far as Bethel, more than 50 miles away.
A visiting Jesuit promptly volunteered: I can make it to Bethel. I’ll go get them. It was nighttime, and he asked several of the Jesuit Volunteers to go out to the river and put down coffee tins with fire inside to make a “runway” of sorts.
When they returned from Bethel, he had to make at least two attempts at a landing before he settled the plane down on the river and my mom and her friend climbed down, rather shakily, from his plane.
It was probably all in a day’s work for that Jesuit. But for me, it was a gift of generosity and courage.
The other gift that Jesuit gave me was his favorite Scripture quote: Micah 6:8. It’s become a favorite of mine: “You have been told what is right and what God wants of you: Only this — to act justly, love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.”
That little sentence sums it up, doesn’t it? All the worrying we do about rules and regulations seems silly when you read Micah. It’s all there, and it’s profoundly simple, and yet intensely demanding and compelling.
I think that’s what I love about Pope Francis: Good Jesuit that he is, he’s making it simple yet demanding and compelling at the same time. He doesn’t just preach, for example, about the evils of our consumerism; he challenges us to live more simply as he does. He’s challenging us all, priests and bishops included.
Like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words,” Francis is challenging us to share this Christianity we profess by the example of our lives.
The other day, a Jesuit friend of mine was walking in our town’s Old Market, a mecca for tourists, artists, the young. He was wearing his clerics, and he passed a young girl, with her dog, sitting with her back to a storefront.
“She looked a bit rough,” he recalled. But then, he heard her call after him.
“Hey,” she said, “I like your pope.”
In a world yearning for moral leadership, millions join her in “liking” Pope Francis. We Catholics share the responsibility of this exciting moment in time: Like the priest who landed on the river through those pots of fire, we must be fearless and generous as we invite the world to Christ. The new evangelization is here, and the harvest is ripe.