An American priest who ministers to the sick has called Pope Francis a "real pastor" who, through taking risks and reaching out, teaches priests "how to pastor better."

In an interview with ZENIT this week, Fr. Gerald Mahon, pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Minnesota, said "Jesus was always wanting to meet someone where they were at, to give them a face, a voice of compassion, of comfort, of love, of mercy," and he underscored how Pope Francis is doing just that.

After speaking at Communion and Liberation's annual 'Meeting' in Rimini, the priest, whose parish is next door to the Mayo Medical Clinic, explained to ZENIT the importance of conveying to the sick that they are more than their illness and how suffering has meaning because Christ leads you.

In addition, Fr. Mahon spoke of Pope Francis’ outreach to those suffering from ill health, the example he sets to pastors, his parishioners’ view of the Holy Father, as well as the impact of a 2015 papal visit to the United States and why it would be “a miracle of grace.”

Based in Rochester, Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic is reputed to be the best hospital in the United States. It is the first and largest integrated nonprofit medical group practice in the world, employing more than 3,800 physicians and scientists and 50,900 allied health staff.


ZENIT: Your discourse today was centered on "Man is Worth More than Sickness." Could you elaborate on the key takeaway you hope to have conveyed regarding this subject?

Fr. Mahon: Because I meet so many people that come to the Mayo Medical Community for a second opinion, what I discovered is that once they realize that nothing more that can be done for them, they find their way to our Church very often and they are really searching for a deeper experience of: “Who is God?” “Who am I?” “What does this mean?” “What gives meaning to my life?

And what’s amazing for me is how available they are to discover more about Christ, more about God in that moment because they are so powerless and they’re just so open to meet someone, visit with someone and even in the midst of tears, in the midst of tremendous drama, they are filled with hope because they are bridging, in some ways, life and life eternal.  It’s a profound experience to stay with them.

ZENIT: Pope Francis has been reaching out to those suffering. He’s been embracing people who are ill with severe health conditions, and at almost every visit, he has specifically greeted those who are disabled, with illnesses, often at different clinics or rehabilitation centers. Could you elaborate on what the Holy Father has been doing in terms of his outreach?

Fr. Mahon: Thank you. What I experienced in Pope Francis is that he’s not afraid to reach out and take the risk, and he also understands profoundly, it seems to me, this simple touch, this simple voice, this simple telephone call, or his way to reach out to something matters. He’s a real pastor because in my experience in a parish is that, it’s not like you come in with big answers. Jesus didn’t either. Jesus was always wanting to meet someone, to meet them where they were at, and to give them a face, a voice of compassion, of comfort, of love, of mercy, and I think Francis is doing this, Pope Francis, in such a profound way.

ZENIT: Do your parishioners share this view of Pope Francis as well?

Fr. Mahon: Recently, in America, where I am, they loved our former popes. But they speak about him with newness, that there is a way in which he can reach out to people.

And honestly he teaches me, and I think he teaches all of us who are pastors how to pastor better, how to take these opportunities of a little risk to visit with someone, to reach out with someone, to pray with someone. And our people are often speaking about his way of being, his way of simplicity, his way of being so available as a presence and how he easily recognizes a need and he sees a need and he moves to take of that.

ZENIT: According to you, how important is a visit of the Holy Father needed to the United States?

Fr. Mahon: We are hoping, and we understand, that he should be coming to Philadelphia.

His visit to the United States would be a powerful sign. It would communicate what he does around the world, even as he does so now, with all of his ways to consistently show the world, through the Vatican news and all these ways, he changes and opens the hearts of people.

So his presence in our midst and in our land would be a miracle of grace.

ZENIT: Turning to a personal story, I had read a little bit about your parish and its recent renovations or construction. In a quote, you made reference to this project as a dream that came to materialize “brick by brick.” Could you explain?

Fr. Mahon: I came to my parish in 1995, so I am approaching 20 years at St. John the Evangelist. And when I arrived, it was sort of an older parish, it’s downtown, it wasn’t so possible to regenerate this parish.

So we began to study the physical plant. We began to look at the vision of how we can be true to the Catholic tradition, and it has been an explosion of new life. And when I say "brick by brick," it means not only brick and mortar which was important because we changed the environment. We have a beautiful Church. We connected to the walking subway with the city. We doubled the size of our school. So all of these changes were both physical, but there was a sense of beauty and wonder. And it has transformed the physical plant, but it has transformed the hearts of people, and now we have a tremendous amount of baptisms, and celebrations of marriage and sacraments. It is an alive parish, which is so beautiful for all the people visiting the medical center as they come to our parish and they experience new life there.

"Brick by brick" is both in the sense of the “physical plant,” but it’s also "brick by brick" in the hearts of the people.

The change happened. People understand clearly that there is a life there and there is a life there with Christ, and with the Catholic tradition, and they are moved, I mean really … People join because they’ve had an experience of what a true Catholic community is possible.

ZENIT: When looking at those who are suffering, particularly in the Mayo Clinic, what would you say is the biggest misunderstanding about those who are ill and their struggles? And what hope or message would you like to convey to these individuals?

Fr. Mahon: One of the struggles with family members is that they make comparisons: "Why is this happening to my son and my grandfather is is 91 years old, and he would trade?" So they easily make comparisons, not understanding why is this happening to someone that I love, one of my children.

Secondly, they struggle with realizing that suffering has meaning. And this is always an interesting question to open up with people: That Christ would teach us, would lead us, would show us that suffering has meaning. And I watch people discover this reality, this fact, that what looks so hopeless, what looks to have no meaning can, in time, know and discover … and often it happens with patients . The dramatic illness shows the family that I am ok. Actually, something is happening to me in my illness and it may end up comforting and giving hope to their family as much as or more than their family is able to give to them. But that’s when someone has really come to that change in attitude.

And without faith, it is impossible. Because otherwise, it’s a meaningless thing and you become angry and life has no meaning. But when you know and experience that suffering has meaning because Christ is the one who leads you, shows you his face, this is what changes the world.


On the NET:

Church of St. John the Evangelist

Mayo Clinic Official Site: