A massive tornado, more than three kilometres wide, devastated Oklahoma City in the heartland of the U.S. Authorities have confirmed 24 casualties so far, at least 20 of whom were children. Rescue teams are working around the clock to search for survivors, especially in the area of Moore, a community of some 50,000 people south of the city. Thousands are homeless.
In a tweet, Pope Francis wrote: "I am close to the families of all who died in the Oklahoma tornado, especially those who lost young children. Join me in praying for them".
That day he also sent a message through the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington to Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City. Signed by the Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone, the message reads: "The Holy Father has followed with deep concern the aftermath of the devastating tornado which has struck Oklahoma and he asks you convey to the entire community the assurance of his solidarity and closeness in prayer. Conscious of the tragic loss of life and the immensity of the work of rebuilding that lies ahead, he asks Almighty God to grant eternal rest to the departed, comfort to the afflicted, and strength and hope to the homeless and the injured.
In a particular way he commends to the Father of mercies the many young children among the victims and their grieving families. Upon the local civil and religious leaders, and upon all involved in the relief efforts, His Holiness invokes the Risen Lord's gifts of consolation, strength and perseverance in every good."
Mission: without a doubt this is the best word to describe the close of that great Pentecost meeting of the Bishop of Rome with over 200,000 people belonging, to Catholic associations and movements. The necessary, pressing need to witness to and preach the Gospel was at the heart of the long vigil and then of the homily Pope Francis gave at Mass outside St Peter's, taking up themes and expressions from his daily preaching in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, effective as it is engaging.
Equally vivid and fervent were the Pontiff's answers to four questions. "I have thought about them", he said straight away, as if to emphasize the authenticity of a personal witness. And this is the key to truly understanding the Bishop of Rome's words and the interest they are stirring also outside the visible bounds of the Church. Indeed it is his personal experience - "my life-story" - that Pope Francis immediately called to mind, addressing those present in St Peter's Square and multitudes of others, women and men, across the world. The faith? I had the great blessing of growing up in a family in which faith was lived in a simple, practical way, he answered, and it was a woman - "my paternal grandmother" - who "talked to us about Jesus". Like so many women, from the early times of the Church: for example, Lo'is and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Timothy, whose faith is explicitly recorded at the beginning of the Apostle's Second Letter to him, the Pope observed.
The witness that Pope Francis communicates directly is based on these two points: personal experience and deep meditation on Scripture. He speaks about 21 September 1953 as though it were yesterday; he was 17 years old when he met a priest he did not know and confessed to him because he felt distinctly that "someone was waiting for him". Thus he cited a verse from the opening of Jeremiah's prophesy to show how the Lord, compared to almond blossom, first waits for us. He knocks at our door, and is he not often knocking "to come out? And we do not let him out because of our own need for security, because so often we are locked into ephemeral structures", the Pope added.
In continuity with his predecessors - Benedict XVI and John Paul II, referred to by their successor, but Paul VI, too, who stressed the urgent need in our time for teachers to be first of all witnesses - Pope Francis once again insisted on the crucial importance of the testimony of a consistent life: in order to live "Christianity as an encounter with Jesus that brings me to others, not just as a social label". In this sense he explained that for believers in Christ poverty "is not a sociological, philosophical or cultural category". It is theological. That is, "the poverty that brought the Son of God to us through his Incarnation".
And it is precisely this testimony that must spur the Church to step outside herself to all the outskirts, existential and material, of the world today. For a mission that is free from every form of self-reference and lets itself be rekindled by the newness and harmony of the flame that represents the Spirit of God.