Pope Francis landed in Washington on 22 Sep. for his first visit to the United States, a country that he did not know and that did not know him. He flew out Sunday night, having wowed Washington and New York, while leaving behind a downtown Philadelphia transformed into a “Francisville” of pilgrims, families and hawkers selling Francis swag.
“Please know that as I prepare to leave, I do so with a heart filled with gratitude and hope,” Pope Francis said at the Philadelphia International Airport before departing for Rome on 27 September. In fact he was taken up, even “surprised” by the warmth and religiosity of the American faithful, as he acknowledged later, on board.
Prior to this historic visit of the Roman Pontiff, everyone seemed to ask, “How is Francis going to navigate a uniquely American minefield of political and religious divisions, as well as an outspoken faction of conservative Catholics deeply suspicious of him?” From the time he landed in, they were in fact receiving the answer.
The papal jet descended out of cloudy skies to touch down at Andrews Air Force Base. His white robes flapping in the breeze and his skullcap held in his hand rather than on his head, the pontiff was greeted by President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and their families.
The exuberant but unassuming ceremony seemed designed especially for a Pope who has inspired millions around the world with a humbler, more populist approach to the papacy. Hundreds of guests cheered, an honor guard stood at attention and a high school band performed the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” Four children from local Roman Catholic schools greeted him, with one handing him flowers.
“Ho, ho, hey, hey, welcome to the U.S.A.,” the crowd chanted at one point. At another, it chanted, “We love Francis, yes we do. We love Francis, how about you?”
He then climbed into a decidedly modest Fiat 500L hatchback, for the ride to the Apostolic Nunciature, the equivalent of an embassy, where he was staying.
In White House
On 23 September Francis was offered an ecstatic reception at the White House. He waved to vast crowds from a special open-sided Jeep and kissed babies carried to him by security personnel. Some had even camped out all night in hopes of a glimpse of the Pope.
After arriving at the White House in a humble Fiat, Francis was quickly escorted onto a red-carpeted stage at the South Portico. He offered a robust endorsement of Mr. Obama’s efforts to combat climate change. In his remarks, Mr. Obama praised the moral authority of the Pope who presides over the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, which “comes not just through words but also through deeds.” He sought to tie his own initiatives to the pope’s focus on the needy and the dispossessed. “You shake our conscience from slumber,” the President said. The two men, with an interpreter, spent about 40 minutes together in the Oval Office.
St. Mathew’s Cathedral
Upon leaving the White House, Francis mounted his open-sided popemobile and was driven around the Ellipse and up to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the mother church for the Archdiocese of Washington. Along the way, a young girl, Sofía Cruz of Los Angeles, got through the barricade and was carried to the Pope at his behest. She carried a message about immigration, which was passed into the popemobile.
The cathedral was the site of the State funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1979 during the first visit by a pope to Washington.
The pope addressed about 300 bishops during a midday prayer service and urged dialogue in coping with difficult issues. “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor; it has no place in his heart.”
There were about 25,000 pilgrims gathered outside the nation’s largest Catholic Church to see Pope Francis canonize Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who spread the gospel through California in the 18th century.
In the homily delivered in Spanish, the Pope urged Catholics to go out and spread the gospel, as St. Serra did, and to share in the happiness of their faith. That would be an antidote against the “anesthetizing of your hearts.”
At the US Congress
Francis was the first Pope to address a joint Congress in the US. Speaking in English, he issued to lawmakers, a vigorous call to action.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Francis said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also such.” He insisted, “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.” He cited the golden rule, “do-unto-others…” and added, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
He placed before them four role models: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
With the homeless
The residents of the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter had lunch with Pope Francis. He himself did not eat, but waded through tables, stopping to lay his hand on the heads of children who had kept quiet during hours of waiting by coloring in the pope pictures they were given with crayons. Smiling and seemingly unhurried, Francis moved among them, as they took selfies and reached out to touch him and talk to him.
One of his biggest applause lines during his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral came when he expressed his love and appreciation for religious sisters. He added to the thought on Saturday, remarking on the “immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make to the life of our communities.”
At the UN Global Meet
On 25 September Pope Francis was the inaugural speaker at the global assembly of the United Nations, in New York. It was the first time a pope addressed such a large gathering of world leaders at the UN. He said, “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” He said that “the poor are the biggest victims of environmental destruction.”
He spoke against arms trade and terrorism. The Assembly clapped in approval during his speech, at least 20 times. While leaving he thanked staff members at the UN for their “quiet and devoted work.”
Prayer for Peace
From the UN, the pope’s motorcade sped downtown to the World Trade Centre site. Upon arriving, he walked into the 11 September Memorial and Museum, flanked by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and others, slowly making his way past the bottom of the memorial’s North Pool to the top of the South Pool.
He spent some time praying for peace with members of other religions. “This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division,” he said.
All day, enormous crowds lined sidewalks behind metal barriers and tall fences, straining for a glimpse of the figure in white. “I’m Jewish, and this is still the coolest moment of my life,” said 70 year old Julie Rodgers.
The afternoon’s first stop for Francis was Our Lady Queen of the Angels School on East 112th Street. Inside a brightly coloured classroom, he warmly greeted about two dozen children. “This is nice!” he said and examining class projects. The children enthusiastically explained their projects all pointing to the need of “caring for our common home” – Laudati Si’. Francis reminded, all children need to have opportunities “like you.” He joked saying, “I too give a homework for you. Please don’t forget to pray for me.”
Mass at Madison Square
Perhaps the day’s greatest spectacle was his winding sweep through a swath of Central Park. The throngs roared their greetings to the “people’s Pope,” using the name by which he is commonly known: “Viva Papa!” When the 5-year-old daughter of a Mexican immigrants broke through security, Francis signaled the guards to bring her over so he could offer a kiss.
During the mass in the square, attended by many thousands, Francis said that in big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath ‘the rapid pace of change,’ so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, and the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.”
“We are amplifying the Pope’s agenda; we are answering his call to action,” said the Mayor of New York, Mr. de Blasio, as he and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, announced new services for the city’s homeless. What better time, the mayor said, “than this when we have the leading moral force on this earth in our midst.”
On the final leg of his first trip to the United States, Francis arrived in Philadelphia and went straight to the city’s Roman Catholic basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput gave a formal welcome with a jocular line: “This is a city that would change its name to Francisville today,” he said.
After noon, he travelled to the Independence Mall to speak on Religious freedom. “Religious freedom means the right to worship God, “as our consciences dictate,” Francis said.
Francis extolled the principles of the country’s founding fathers embodied by the Declaration of Independence signed in the building behind him. “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality,” Francis said, “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he added.
Festival of Families
The pope ended the day with an appearance at an event honouring families that wove in musical acts. An enthused Francis cast aside his prepared speech and spoke about the importance of families and the duty of the government to support them. “Let’s protect the family because it’s in the family that our future is at play!” he declared.
Francis had timed his trip to Philadelphia to coincide with the World Meeting of Families. It was founded in 1994 by Pope John Paul II and takes place every three years.
Francis’ most emotional speech came on 26 September night as he stood before hundreds of thousands of families from around the world, who had gathered for the World Meeting of Families. Smiling, gesticulating like an energetic grandfather, he tossed aside his script and told a simple story of love and creation. Then a child asked him, “Holy Father what was God doing before He created the world?”
The Pope paused at the unexpected question. Then with a smile he said “Before creating, God was loving!”
Pope Francis turned penitent and pastor on the final day of his visit to the US, declaring himself “overwhelmed by shame” at the sexual violation of children by his clergy. Later he visited inmates at a local jail.
The Mass which marked the end of the World Family Meet, on Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presented the Pope on the grandest of scales, with nearly a million passing through the city’s lockdown-emptied streets into Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which was studded with Jumbotron screens.
As he met with bishops who were attending the Meet, he had an indirect appeal to the conservatives: “The temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God threatens the authenticity of faith. It should be vigorously rejected.” Excluding people not considered “like us” is wrong, he said. “Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of the faith!”
The Pope urged the bishops not to lament the good old days and dismiss young people as “hopelessly timid, weak, inconsistent.”
He paid a visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, mainly an intake jail, which has roughly 2,800 inmates and is one of six jails in Philadelphia’s system. Some of the inmates had made Francis a hand-carved chair; he thanked them for it.
“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” he told the roughly 100 men and women detainees, drawn at random. After the speech, Francis walked along the rows of inmates sitting in chairs, shaking hands, chatting, laying his hand on their foreheads and hugging a few.
The success of the trip is doubly important for Francis, because he returns to Vatican for what could become a showdown between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church Beginning on 4 October, Francis is convening a synod of bishops to hash out how the church should approach issues related to family stability today.