Reflection on Pope Francis and His Visit to the United States

Oct 05, 2015

One of my favorite statues in Rome depicts St. Francis with one arm stretched up to heaven and the other reaching to the earth. This image captures what I have seen, felt, and experienced in Pope Francis and in his historic visit to the United States. He is a man grounded in the realities of the joys and sufferings of people; his capacity to enter into the world of others and to respond with feeling touches not only those whom he encounters in a direct and face-to-face way, but also those who have eyes and hearts open to see and feel God’s unconditional love in action. Pope Francis exudes the joy, compassion, hope, and humanity of one who is fully alive with love of God and love of neighbor.

On September 24, through the kindness of Representative Matt Cartwright, I was privileged to attend Pope Francis’s address to a Joint Session of Congress. As I sat in the gallery waiting for Our Holy Father, I could feel the energy and sense of anticipation that was swirling around me. I used the time chatting with other guests, noticing many familiar faces from the world of politics, the media, Church leadership and Catholic higher education, and taking in the significance of what was about to happen. The Chamber floor was filled with Senators and members of the House of Representatives, members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of the Joint Chiefs, and four Justices of the Supreme Court. Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner moved to their seats; the doors opened, and His Holiness, Pope Francis of the Holy See, entered to thunderous applause.

From the first few words of his address, when Pope Francis expressed gratitude for the invitation to speak to Congress “in the land of the free and the home of the brave” and claimed his identity as “a son of this great continent,” he captivated the audience. I was struck by the joy and the overwhelming spirit of unity that seemed to draw his listeners together. It was an amazing experience for me to watch the faces of leaders—often poles apart on issues and political perspectives—in rapt attention to the calm, sincere, and deeply profound message of a Pope who is more than anything else a pastor.

The content of the Pope’s address has been well reported elsewhere, so what I would like to share is the particular impact that his presence and his words had on me. I was touched by the calm and open way in which he spoke, by the respect and dignity that he evidences for each and every person, by his authenticity, simplicity and humility, by his wit and wisdom, by his scholarship, and by his heart-warming smile.

I noticed the skill and integrity that he brought to discussion of disturbing world situations, atrocities, and violent ruptures in the human and social fabric. Pope Francis has a rare ability to name and enter into human pain while at the same time summoning courage, hope, and compassion. This, I believe, springs from the depth of his faith and his spirituality.

I loved his many references to the common good, his head- on recognition that no religion “is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism,” his ardent challenge to resolve geopolitical and economic crises and to avert the devastating effects of environmental deterioration, and his plea for cooperation and collaboration in responding to the needs of the poor, the hopes and dreams of immigrants, and the global refugee crisis. Rather than paralyzing people with the enormity of the scope and depth of contemporary problems, Pope Francis engenders conviction that change is possible when people motivated by love and justice are willing to sacrifice to bring forth the best in each person and in society.

I know that in the coming weeks and months I will spend much time reflecting on the leaders Pope Francis wove into his talk because of the special gift and message that they bring to these particular times: Moses who calls us to unity through just legislation; Abraham Lincoln who labored tirelessly for freedom and an end to division; Martin Luther King who inspires us to dreams that exclude no one and awaken and realize what is best in the human spirit; Dorothy Day who serves as a model of social justice and the Golden Rule in action; and Thomas Merton who used his gifts of prayer, contemplation, and intellect to call us to dialogue and the promotion of peace between peoples and religions.

Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has been a time of grace not just for Americans but for the entire world. In a time desperate for moral leadership, he has reminded us of the power of goodness and the irrepressible attraction of unconditional and inclusive love. Thank you, Holy Father, pray for us as we pray in gratitude for you.