Pope Francis meets people involved with St. Maria’s Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington Sept. 24. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Francis wows America

  • October 1, 2015

PHILIDELPHIA - Pray for the Pope. It’s the one thing he wants. For six days in America, he asked school children, the president, congressmen, senators, UN diplomats, bishops, a million Mass-goers, the homeless and prisoners all to pray for him.

As he visited Washington, New York and Philadelphia Sept. 22 to 27, Pope Francis’ insistence on that one request — to pray for the Pope — wormed its way into the heart of his message for America and a worldwide audience.

Francis shared with America his gift of sincerity and consistency, whether he was speaking to the world’s diplomatic elite at the United Nations in New York or his brother bishops at Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia; whether he was delivering a homily at Mass in Spanish or making a speech in English to senators in Washington. His message was always clear and consistent.

“For me, the most important thing was the consistency of the message,” Janine Walsh of the Franciscan Action Network told The Catholic Register. “The message over all was consistently about love, inclusion, respect. You can name the people or issue he was directing the message to, but it all boiled down to those three things.”

That consistency was evident throughout a busy schedule that saw the Pope meet President Barrack Obama at the White House, canonize St. Junipero Serra, become the first pontiff to address Congress, speak to the United Nations, say Mass for 19,000 at Madison Square Garden, honour the dead at the site at ground zero in New York, talk in Philadelphia from a lectern once used by Abraham Lincoln and celebrate a concluding Mass attended by a million people in downtown Philadelphia. The primary purpose of his visit was to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where he pocketed his prepared text and gave an uplifting and amusing talk on family life.

Those were the large events. In keeping with his custom, the Pope also spent time at a Catholic school in Harlem, a homeless shelter in Washington and a prison in Philadelphia.

We must care for one another, the Pope repeated. It is so little to ask, and we’re not doing it.

“We live in a lonely world with fear of commitment, accumulating followers on social networks,” Pope Francis told bishops and seminarians at Charles Borromeo Seminary.

On the subject of families, Pope Francis was clear that we need each other.

“A people that does not know how to care for the children and a people that does not know how to care for the grandparents is a people without a future, because it doesn’t have strength and it doesn’t have the memory that will carry it forward,” he said in an unscripted lesson on family life at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia.

When the care and connection necessary for family life is missing, it is also missing on the global stage. There are “many victims of badly exercised power,” the Pope told UN diplomats and world leaders.

The victims are the poor and the Earth.

“A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged,” said Francis. “The poorest are those who suffer most from such offences…(because they are) cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.”

Here Pope Francis’ consistency reaches back to his first month in office when he visited Lampedusa off the Italian coast to speak about how we treat refugees who risk death for a better life. Their plight illustrates a culture of waste and the world’s attitudes towards disposable humans. He told Congress that the world must treat refugees with compassion.

“If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities,” he said.

For Congress, the Pope quite naturally wove together his concern for public global issues of migration and climate change with his concern for the state of the family. “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and out,” he told the legislators. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question.”

It is relationships within the family and the Golden Rule which can lead politicians back to a fruitful dialogue, to remember “the common good and co-operation,” he told Congress.

But it was not all theory and principles. He got down to brass tacks on immigration, telling America’s political leaders, “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Francis’ teaching on migration and globalization was not only for those who ride in the backs of limousines in Washington.

Standing before an audience full of Latino and Asian migrants who crowded shoulder to shoulder over a kilometre of lawns and closed-off streets along Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, the Pope went off script three days later to plead with them to foster a healthier, more fruitful globalization.

The “technocratic paradigm” of top-down, elite-driven globalization can only be countered by ordinary people living their culture and traditions within their families, communities and churches, said Francis.

“I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” he said.

“Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood.”

It was the word “dialogue,” repeated over and over, that struck New Yorker Tom Backen after listening to Pope Francis speak to Congress.

“That’s one of the biggest problems in this country and Congress,” said the immigration lawyer with the Church of St. Francis of Assisi migrant centre on West 31st Street in Manhattan. “People just don’t listen to each other.”

It isn’t just that Francis has identified a problem in America that has been decried by editorial writers, columnists, politicians and preachers from coast to coast. The Pope also demonstrated how citizens should live in solidarity when he left Capitol Hill to have lunch with the homeless, when he left the United Nations to visit children in Harlem.

“It rings truer because of that,” said Backen.

“We’ve needed this Pope for a long time,” said 70-year-old Kate Bini, a retired buyer who worked in New York’s garment district. “Everything that he says works. It’s good for the people in Congress, but also for the good of any people in the country, any country.”

“What stayed with me was one word that the Pope kept on treating us — the word dialogue,” said Capuchin Franciscan Father Julian Jagudilla. “It’s inspiring in a way to watch him.”

Brother Shadi Naim of the Institute of the Incarnate Word stood on Benjamin Franklin Parkway for hours, waiting to participate in an ordinary Sunday Mass with Pope Francis — a Mass he would not see except on a giant screen, a Mass he could have had in a quiet parish church. There were about one million people around him. He had endured a long line to get through security and there was no place to sit. But Naim found the suggestion he could attend Sunday Mass anywhere else frankly bizarre. For Naim, the Pope and his words are necessary, essential, believable.

“You can’t see, but you can feel it,” he said as he looked out at the crowd.

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