A Message from the Bishop
September 24, 2015

Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
What did you go out to see?  A man dressed in fine clothes?  Matthew 11:8
As I write, there is great excitement across the country about the visit of Pope Francis to the United States. For months we have all been warned about the crowds that will descend upon Washington, New York and Philadelphia this weekend, especially for the papal mass on Sunday. Pope Francis has captivated the hearts and imaginations of people – Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic alike – around the world. The Roman Catholic Church and, perhaps, Christianity in general hopes this will spark growth and renewal in the Church.
There is even a phrase for it all: “the Francis effect.” What is it is about? What are people going out to see?
I can’t help thinking of images of Francis that have impressed themselves upon us: The former Cardinal of Argentina who used to ride the bus to work. The newly elected Pope who took the name of the most gentle and beloved Saint of the Church, Francis of Assisi (and, as a Jesuit, received a double blessing in honoring St. Francis Xavier as well). His insistence on simple vestments. He charmed the world by personally going to the front desk of the hotel where he had been staying during the Papal enclave to pay his own bill. He visited an Italian women’s prison on the Maundy Thursday after his election and washed the feet of inmates, one of them a Serbian Muslim. Who was not moved when he embraced and kissed a young man with cerebral palsy as he greeted the crowds on that first Easter Day as Pope? He chose to live in modest guest quarters at the Vatican instead of living in the grander Papal apartment (He also got on the case of Cardinals around the world who were living in palatial residences!)
More than anything, it is Pope Francis’s determination to be among the people, his compassion for the poor, his prophetic voice speaking out about the brutal inequalities of the world and about the damage we are doing to the environment that draw so many to him. What are people going out to see? I believe what people see in Francis is an icon of Jesus, a man infused with the love of God in Jesus Christ. What is most attractive about Francis is that which most reminds us of Jesus.
To be sure, we Episcopalians have significant differences with Francis and the Roman Catholic Church over a variety of questions: We differ over authority and governance in the Church; the role of women and LGBT, especially with respect to ordination; over divorce and remarriage and many other issues. On the other hand, there are many, many places where we can find, and have found, common cause: care for the poor and marginalized,  deep concern about climate change and the environment; an urgent desire for justice.
Moreover, whether or not we accept the Pope’s ecclesiastical authority, he is, in fact, a symbol of Christianity in a way that no other figure is for any other world religion. In an increasingly unchurched society, many people are making judgments about all of Christianity based on what they see in Pope Francis. Therefore, all Christians should pray for Pope Francis to be a good and loving Pope, one in whom we will always see an image of Jesus. Oh, and by the way, according to our own Baptismal Covenant and theology, our prayer should be that people see the image of Jesus in each of us as well.
This week, I ask all the people and congregations of the Diocese of New Jersey to pray for Francis and to pray for the Church Universal of which we are all a part.
Blessings and peace in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
XII Bishop of New Jersey