This past week in the United States, Pope Francis touched the hearts of millions of Americans, Catholics, other Christians, people of other faiths, and even unbelievers, with his message and witness of love, joy, humility, and hope. It was an incredible week as we welcomed with deep affection the successor of Saint Peter to our nation.
From the moment I entered the Fort Wayne airport to travel to Philadelphia and Washington, people approached me with excitement to talk about the visit of Pope Francis. Everywhere I went throughout the week, on the streets, in churches, restaurants, and hotels, people were smiling as they talked about the Pope’s visit. It was extraordinary to see the interest of so many people, even strangers, who have been touched by the goodness and simplicity of our Holy Father.
I was happy to participate in several of the papal events as well as activities at the World Meeting of Families. Pope Francis spoke to the U.S. bishops during Midday Prayer on Wednesday, September 23rd, in Saint Matthew Cathedral in Washington. He encouraged us in our ministry, reminding us that is really God’s ministry, not ours. The Holy Father reminded us that a bishop’s ministry must be marked by compassion, joy, inclusivity, simplicity, dialogue, self-giving, mercy, and humility. I was especially moved by his words about the Church attracting people by being “the family fire” that offers warmth, comfort, and community. Pope Francis encouraged us to care for the poor and immigrants and to stay close to our people, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus and our hearts open to others. I thought about how the Pope models these things in his own life and ministry.
Later on Wednesday, we concelebrated with the Holy Father the canonization Mass of Saint Junipero Serra outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In his homily, the Pope reflected on Saint Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, rejoice! Pope Francis asked: “How do we make the joy of the Gospel increase and take deeper root in our lives?” He said that Jesus gives us the answer: He told us to go forth and proclaim the Gospel. This is what Father Serra did. Pope Francis said: “the joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.” As he does so often, the Holy Father called all Catholics to be missionary disciples, saying that this is what keeps the faith alive and joyful.
On Thursday, I returned to Philadelphia. That evening, I celebrated Mass at Saint Peter Church and the Shrine of Saint John Neumann. It was a Mass for the deaf and persons with disabilities who were participating in the World Meeting of Families. My family and several faithful of our diocese attended the Mass. The church was full with hundreds of persons with various kinds of disabilities, the blind, the deaf, and their families and caregivers. Despite the crosses they carry, the people prayed and sang with much joy. They know the Lord’s tender love and teach us so much about perseverance in faith in the midst of trials and suffering. I was very moved by this liturgy and an encounter I had there with a man who was blind and deaf. I could only communicate with him by touch. These are truly God’s especially beloved children and must be welcomed as our beloved brothers and sisters in the Church.
Friday was mostly free so I met with old friends and enjoyed walking through center city Philadelphia. We visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the outdoor shrine there of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Thousands of people wrote prayer intentions on cloth and tied and attached them at the shrine where others untied the cloth and prayed for one anothers’ intentions. We also visited and prayed at the relics of Saint Maria Goretti brought from Italy to Saint John the Evangelist Church for the World Meeting of Families.
On Saturday morning, I was happy to celebrate Mass with the pilgrims from our diocese at Saint John the Evangelist Church. Three of our priests concelebrated the Mass: Father Daryl Rybicki, Father Glenn Kohrman, and Father Andrew Curry. Saint John’s is a beautiful church, the former cathedral of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, including when Saint John Neumann was the bishop. It was also the home parish of Saint Katharine Drexel and her family. It was good to see many people from our diocese enjoying the World Meeting of Families and looking forward with excitement to see Pope Francis.
On Saturday, Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia from New York. Despite the very tight security and closed streets, the people’s enthusiasm was not dampened. As in Washington and New York, the streets were filled with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father. I and my brother bishops again went through screening by the Secret Service and were bussed to the event at Independence Hall. It was a long wait, but well worth it to see Pope Francis standing before the seat of our nation’s independence. While waiting, I was happy to chat a while with former Pennsylvania governor, Tom Corbett and his wife, whom I hadn’t seen since leaving Harrisburg.
Speaking from the podium used by President Abraham Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address, Pope Francis praised our nation’s immigrant history. He encouraged the many immigrants in attendance, saying: “I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation.” Hearing these words, I thought about the gifts that many immigrants bring to the Church in our diocese.
Pope Francis also spoke about religious freedom in his speech in front of Independence Hall, reminding us about the ideals on which our nation was founded. He spoke of religious freedom as “an essential part of the American spirit.” Clearly the Holy Father is aware of the challenges we face today in defending our religious freedom here in the United States.
The climax of the papal visit began Saturday evening with the Festival of Families on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It was a festive evening with beautiful music and faith-filled testimonies given by families representing the five continents. Pope Francis set aside his prepared speech and gave what I thought was his most animated and passionate talk of his U.S. visit. He spoke about the family. He shared some witty stories. He noted with humor how kids often ask difficult questions. He shared a question a child once asked him: “Father, what did God do before creating the world?” The Pope shared his answer: “Before creating the world, God loved, because God is love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” God’s love was then poured out in creation and most importantly in creating the family. And later His love came into the world with His Son who entered the world through the family, through Mary and Joseph who accepted, welcomed, and loved Him. The Holy Family shows us the mission of the family: love. This love involves the cross. The love of the family overcomes division and is the foundation of peace and goodness in society. The Pope’s message really resonated with the huge crowd which seemed to hang onto his every word.
On Sunday, nearly a million people gathered throughout the day along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and nearby for the final Mass of the papal visit and the World Meeting of Families. We bishops again went through security clearance and arrived two hours before Mass began. In the homily at this beautiful liturgy, the Holy Father again spoke about the family. He stressed the importance of small acts of love in family life. “Love is shown by little things,” he said. They show that the Spirit is alive and at work. The Pope called them “little miracles” that are signs of Christ’s own living and active presence in our world.
Before the Holy Father boarded the plane to return to Rome, he said his time in the United States had been “days of great grace” for him. He prayed they were also days of great grace for us. They were for me. I hope and pray that Pope Francis’ visit, his words and his example, will motivate and inspire us and all Americans and will bear much good fruit for the Church’s mission in our country. Thank you, Holy Father! And as he asked many times, let us pray for him!