I would suspect that if each person who experienced Pope Francis’ presence in Washington, D.C., New York or Philadelphia were able to share what that was like, it would be varied. But I think a common description would perhaps be “inspiring.” At least that would be my impression and experience.
Pope Francis gave us all much to think about during his visit to the United States. From my perspective, he truly revealed the heart of a shepherd and a pastor. In the gatherings with the U.S. bishops, he loved us, affirmed us, thanked us and challenged us in fully embracing the mission of Christ and his church.
Coming to the United States as chief pastor and shepherd of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis reaffirmed the importance of church, family, and the sanctity of human life at every stage of its development. He called for an inclusive attitude towards immigrants, reiterated the right of religious freedom and called for a conscious and responsible care for “our common home.”
As I have read the many texts of his talks and homilies, and reflected upon his messages, there is much to digest. Every venue in which he spoke brought forth a certain theme depending upon his audience. But he was very clear in calling all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to embrace the Gospel of Life and the mission of the Christ, to take the church outside its four walls and go into the streets meeting people where they are.
No matter where he went, Pope Francis excited people. The crowds were large and loud, every person hoping to get a glimpse of this spiritual leader. What was so touching were the ways in which he encountered the people in a personal way — a kiss to a baby, stopping and getting out of his car to hug a person with physical disabilities, a visit to a prison or time with the homeless. These are a few ways in which Pope Francis walked the talk.
I was also impressed by the Holy Father’s stamina and his willingness to embrace each experience, each venue, even when he looked exhausted and had difficulty walking. One can only imagine how much energy is needed at the age of 78 for a trip like this. But it appeared to me that the engagement with the people was what energized him.
I am sure that some people around the country had expectations of the Holy Father that were not met. For some conservative Catholics, he was criticized for not speaking more forcefully about the life and marriage issues which this country faces today. People on the other end of the spectrum were happy about his thoughts on immigration and climate change, but would never engage a conversation about his positions regarding abortion, traditional marriage or religious freedom.
Some people expect Pope Francis to speak out clearly on the political issues of today, condemning those who oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church. From my perspective, Pope Francis is not a politician, nor does he see himself as such, but a pastor. His role is not to condemn, but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, modeling his life after him, the Good Shepherd. Therefore he approaches these political issues of the day in a different way than would a politician. He views the issues, not through a political lens, but through a moral lens, the lens of the Gospel. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). And the world was saved through love. Pope Francis speaks the truth with love, the love of Christ.
It was very clear in his messages, especially to the United States Senate and the United Nations, that Pope Francis embraces a policy of dialogue and not demagoguery. Dialogue opens up new opportunities for all. In his meeting with the bishops in Washington he said, “Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting marketplaces, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love” (ref. Mt 20:1-16).
He further stated, “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
What a beautiful grace for our country to have experienced Pope Francis’ presence for a short five days. He touched the hearts of many, both present at the events and those who were able to follow his journey through television coverage. I am very grateful for having been with him in Washington and Philadelphia. His messages and actions were truly inspiring.
I want to conclude with a message which Pope Francis asked the bishops to pass on to our people.
“I would ask you to share my affection and spiritual closeness with the people of God throughout this vast land. The heart of the pope expands to include everyone. May no member of Christ’s body and the American people feel excluded from the pope’s embrace. Wherever the name of Jesus is spoken, may the pope’s voice also be heard to affirm that: ‘He is the Savior’! From the coastal cities to the plains of the Midwest, from the deep South to the far reaches of the West, wherever your people gather in the Eucharistic assembly, may the pope be not simply a name but a felt presence, sustaining the fervent plea of the Bride: ‘Come, Lord!’”