What does it mean to be part of a city? As a country boy, the city was a place of wonder and possibilities beyond the boundaries of a small town. When I was a kid, I looked forward to my aunt coming to visit, because she took us on trips into Kansas City to see the museums, stores, and other sights. I have visited many cities since, places of wonder as well, and yet those first journeys of discovery were important not only for the destinations themselves, but how we traveled and what senses we engaged as we went.
Today the word “city” can mean something else: dirtiness, garbage, crime, intimidation, and death. In my lifetime many fled the cities, incited by fears of decay, racism and financial ruin; and many parts of our cities are still framed as places to be avoided. Not only buildings and streets have fallen into neglect, but also family and community life. Pope Francis has this to say about cities in paragraph 75 of Evangelii Gaudium:
…what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity often become places of isolation and mutual distrust. Houses and neighborhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate. The proclamation of the Gospel will be a basis for restoring the dignity of human life in these contexts, for Jesus desires to pour out an abundance of life upon our cities (cf. Jn 10:10). The unified and complete sense of human life that the Gospel proposes is the best remedy for the ills of our cities, even though we have to realize that a uniform and rigid program of evangelization is not suited to this complex reality. But to live our human life to the fullest and to meet every challenge as a leaven of Gospel witness in every culture and in every city will make us better Christians and bear fruit in our cities.
Francis holds up the New Jerusalem as the model for cities today. He isn’t proposing a specific economic or social system as a cure, but rather a new awareness and compassion—a place where all are welcome and respected, where people live in harmony and peace. As we explore the Church’s mission and our community through the eyes of Evangelii Gaudium, we are called to reflect on our journey to the New Jerusalem, which includes helping build that city of peace around us.
Originally published in The New Wine Press, July 2014