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Friend ready to take action after Vatican meeting

Father Joseph Friend says Pope Francis’ fatherly love was humbling

Published: May 15, 2024   
Vatican Media
Father Joseph Friend (right) shares his Razorback hat with Father Paul Crotty of Australia, who brought a painting from the indigenous people of his country.

Before meeting 200 priests from around the world, Father Joseph Friend had to decide what cultural item he should bring to the Vatican.

While some pastors brought tequila or candy, Father Friend knew what best represented Arkansas: a Razorback Hoghead. A red plastic hat would immediately stand out in the crowd.

“That is one of the most unique things,” he said. “We don’t have any pro teams, and everyone loves the Razorbacks. That hat is just ridiculous.”

The hat was so popular that at the end of the Parish Priests for the Synod: An International Meeting at the Vatican April 28-May 2 the Hoghead disappeared.

“Someone took the Hoghead and I have no idea who has it… It could be in Madagascar or Ukraine or Russia or Slovakia. I have no idea who has it.”

Father Friend, pastoral administrator of Holy Cross Church in Crossett, Holy Spirit Church in Hamburg and Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Village, was one of five American priests chosen to attend the meeting, which had the theme "How to be a synodal local Church in mission."

“It was incredibly joyous,” he said. “That is the one word that keeps coming up. Joyous and thankful. It is pretty insane that a parish priest in the Delta would ever have this experience to witness the universal Church like that.”

Father Friend was chosen to attend because of his involvement in the diocesan and national synod process and his experience in rural parishes. Hundreds of parish priests spent three days praying and discussing their experiences of synodality and discernment in parishes and dioceses before having a two-hour dialogue with Pope Francis May 2.

The results of their discussions and contributions from bishops' conferences will be used in preparing the working document for the second session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October.

Father Friend said some of his best encounters were with priests from Mexico who didn’t know how many immigrants had moved to Arkansas.

“They told me, ‘When you go back home, thank your bishop, thank priests and thank your people for inviting our people in,’” he said. “That was a powerful moment. They had no idea about Arkansas. They were so thankful. We immediately bonded. The Church in Arkansas and Mexico is so intimately connected because of our people.”

Father Friend said meeting Pope Francis for the first time was like meeting a father.

“He was so humble. He was like a father talking to his sons. It was outer-worldly for me because I couldn’t believe I was there. He was so calm, normal and approachable. By the time I shook his hand, it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is Pope Francis and this is my father, this is Peter. He is our leader.’”

Participants were asked to share how their parishes have contributed to the mission of their diocese or eparchy, their experiences of "ecclesial discernment" and how they think participatory bodies like parish councils and finance councils work in their parishes and in their dioceses or eparchies.

The synthesis report of the first session of the synod in October 2023 specifically noted a need to include more parish priests in the synod process.

In a letter to the priests, Pope Francis told them the more pastors empower their parishioners to share responsibility for the mission of the Church, the more they will learn to set their ministry free "from the things that wear us down.”

Father Friend said the discussions with Pope Francis and other priests have pushed him to emphasize the laity's role and how they can put their faith into action more.

“How can parishes set up spaces to facilitate people using their gifts in the parish?” he asked. “We have incredible traditions and incredible writings. (The pope) is say now isn’t the time for words anymore. We need to study the words and know them, but (the pope) is really pushing us to take action.”

For those reading this article, he said, “Put the paper down immediately the moment you are inspired and decide to go live your faith. And come back to the paper. It’s time to move.”

Empowering the laity can be hard for some priests.

“As priests, we can’t be afraid of people wanting to step up,” he said. “If they truly discern with the Spirit and in line with Church teachings, it is going to bring peace and joy to the community. We have to give up control and give it to the Holy Spirit.”

For him personally, Father Friend said he was reminded he needed to stay focused on his role as a missionary and evangelizer, not an administrator.

“It is a huge culture shift, and it can weigh priests down a lot,” he said. “The parish mentality of moving from maintenance to mission. It is so easy to get caught up in this door knob is broken, we need to repaint this, we need to fix the sidewalk… So much of life can get so consumed with that…. How do we develop more of a sense of the early Church? We have to believe we are called to evangelize the world and encounter with a soul and lead them to Jesus and help them live their faith. That has to be in the forefront of our minds.”

In his letter to the priests, Pope Francis said the stronger the sense of shared responsibility in a parish, the more priests can concentrate on the "authentic core" of their ministry: "the proclamation of God's word and the gathering of the community for the breaking of bread."

Synodality is lived in the Church in Arkansas, Father Friend believes.

“We do synodality decently well here,” he said. “We really do rely on the laity a lot. Perhaps our diocese was selected for this process because there is already something moving. Maybe the Holy Spirit is saying let’s take it to the next level… The process has already started here and maybe the Spirit knows we can do it.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this article.

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