By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
It takes a rare figure to inspire the Rev. Brian Vander Wel to pack up his family and brave the crowds of Washington, D.C., all so they can watch an event together on a giant outdoor monitor. But Pope Francis is just such a figure.
Fr. Vander Wel, rector of Christ Church in Accokeek, Maryland, is determined not to miss the Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra at the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23. He will not participate in the Mass because he wants Catholics to have priority. But he will bear witness outside at the site because Francis, like the Catholic Church, inspires him.
“I just want to see him, even if it’s on the TV screen,” Vander Wel said. “Just seeing him in that place and knowing he’s in the city will be enough for me.”
Vander Wel regards the Pope and his visit to the United States as a “hopeful sign” for the Church universal. He holds out hope that Francis, having signed a new pledge to work toward Roman Catholic unity with Eastern Orthodoxy, might one day call an ecumenical council.
Francis is not the first pope Vander Wel has admired. He’s been inspired by Benedict XVI and John Paul II as well. All have led a church that enriches his own faith life and ministry as an Episcopal priest. He has brought elements of high-church Mass to his congregation, including an elevated host and sung liturgy during Eucharist. He plans to introduce incense to the service someday.
“I’m not afraid to say the Hail Mary,” Vander Wel says in a nod to his affinity for Roman Catholicism.
Yet it is the pope’s example of faithful witness that he finds most instructive and important for the Episcopal Church. In his view, the Episcopal Church needs to repent for acting, as other Anglican churches do, as a chaplain to the wider culture and blessing wherever that culture does. For him, Francis and Catholicism are modeling a better way by standing firm on church teachings, including those that have fallen out of favor in the broader culture.
He also celebrates how Pope Francis has stayed true to a familial understanding of church, whereas General Convention made a fateful move around 1920 to stop using the family as the model for church life and instead use the corporation as the paradigm.
“The Episcopal Church began to stylize itself around American corporate life as opposed to around family life,” Vander Wel said. “What we have in the fruit of that is a great corporation. It has flourished in some respects as a corporate entity, but the church never works as a corporation. It is first and foremost the family of God and has to see itself that way.”