I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing (Luke 12.49)

I felt like we were driving toward a fire or into the path of an oncoming hurricane. As our pilgrimage group made our way to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, we saw signs along the way encouraging us to turn back – literally. Soon after crossing into Pennsylvania, highway information signs were broadcasting the message: “Pope to visit Philadelphia September 26-27. Expect delays. Seek alternate routes.” At a Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stop, we encountered travel advisory signs urging us to avoid the Philadelphia area unless we are going to see the Pope (see picture below). It said to expect congestion worse than a blizzard. Be sure to fuel up your car, bring plenty of food and water with you in case you get stranded, and really, if at all possible, just avoid the area. But that was exactly where we were headed.

Turnpike

The signs continued and increased in intensity as we approached Philadelphia. At one point along our journey, we prayed the rosary as a group, and driving through the rolling hills of the Laurel Highlands in western Pennsylvania, seeing message after message urging us to turn around, I got the distinct feeling like we were heading toward a fire or into the path of a hurricane against all advice. And, really, that’s not far from the truth. We as a Church and as individual followers of Jesus Christ are often moving against the stream of our culture, our eyes fixed on a goal of holiness and selfless love that the world around us tells us to avoid at all costs. And, what’s more, as Jesus said, he has indeed come to set the world on fire – and when we orient our lives toward him, we are hoping that our hearts, too, will be set ablaze with love for God and neighbor.

Who knows exactly what this week will bring. But today, Pope Francis arrives in the United States for the first time. Our pilgrim group will join with thousands of others to officially begin the World Meeting of Families. The city of Philadelphia is preparing to welcome visitors at the same time that it is encouraging anyone not coming to see the Pope to stay far away. And Jesus Christ remains in our midst, calling us to follow not the signs of the world but the sign of contradiction – the cross on which death was destroyed and life eternal made possible for those who believe.

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