Pope Francis’ historic first visit to the United States transcends politics
Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States was historic on many fronts: the first pope to address congress, the first world meeting of families in America, and the first canonization on U.S. soil.
The Sept. 22-27 visit was also the first time that secular cable news networks aired non-stop live Catholic content for six days straight – which, in our day and age, is nothing short of miraculous.
In New York, Philadelphia and Washington, people lined up patiently for hours just to see Pope Francis pass by.
“There is still something unique about the papacy and the church,” said Matthew Pinto, president of Ascension Press and a member of Legatus’ Philadelphia Chapter. “I actually think humanity is hard-wired for the church, whether they know it or not. What other religious figure would draw the kind of crowds we saw, waiting in some cases for six or seven hours?”
For many observers, the Pope’s Sept. 24 address to Congress stands out as the most important speech of his visit.
Pope Francis discussed the sacredness of human life and the need to respect immigrants. In unison with his predecessors — Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI — he called for the abolition of the death penalty and the arms trade.
And Legatus members worldwide were happy to hear the Holy Father laud business and the free market.
Pope Francis at Ground Zero
“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world,” he told members of Congress. “It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
In the speech, Pope Francis recalled four Americans who stood out for their contributions to the nation: Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Merton — two Catholics and two non-Catholics.
The Pope also alluded to the redefinition of marriage as a major challenge.
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question — as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he said. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Pope Francis addressed the 193-member United Nations in a wideranging 48-minute speech in Spanish on Sept. 25. His talk touched on the environment, the sanctity of human life, the unborn, human trafficking, slave labor, the drug trade and nuclear proliferation.
With regard to the environment, the pontiff carefully connected the reasons for safeguarding the earth’s natural resources to safeguarding human dignity.
“First, it must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist, for two reasons,” he explained. “First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value — in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures.”
Pope Francis also spoke about the difference between men and women, and parents’ primary right to their children.
Another historic first was Pope Francis’ canonization of Junípero Serra — the first Hispanic saint for the U.S. and the first canonization on American soil. Serra evangelized Native Americans over 200 years ago, founding the first nine missions in California. The Sept. 23 canonization Mass took place at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
While there had been some controversy, with certain Native American groups claiming that Serra had mistreated Indians, Pope Francis set the record straight.
“Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” he said.
Pope Francis used his homily to explain what the nature of mission is — not just for missionaries and priests, but for all baptized Catholics. “Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven. Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing.”
For John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America and a member of Legatus’ Washington, D.C., Chapter, the canonization was a high point.
“It was a beautiful day,” Garvey told Legatus magazine. “I agreed with the Holy Father that he thinks of Serra as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of America. The Catholic part of America in the West and South is much older than most people realize.”
World meeting of families
The World Meeting of Families brought tens of thousands to Philadelphia for an Adult Congress, a Youth Congress and a family film festival from Sept. 22-25.
The Adult Congress, which featured renowned speakers like Bishop Robert Barron, Helen Alvaré and Pastor Rick Warren, consisted of 20 speakers and 12 panel discussions. Many of these speeches were standing room only.
The Youth Congress featured 17 talks and 10 musical performances, organized by Legate Matthew Pinto’s Ascension Press.
“It was like a mini-World Youth Day,” said Pinto, who presented a talk on balancing family life at the Adult Congress. “It was an extraordinary event, probably life-changing for my family. We brought five of our six kids. I was deeply moved by Pope Francis’ love for broken humanity, which at the end of the day, is all of us.”
Curtis Martin — founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, member of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and a member of Legatus’ Denver Chapter — spoke to a crowd about the New Evangelization.
“Pope Francis is a remarkably engaging person,” Martin explained. “Everyone sees his radiance and his hunger to see the world transformed from consumerism to being Christ-centered.”
Toward the end of the World Meeting of Families on Saturday evening, Pope Francis put down his notes and spoke from his heart about the family.
“This was the high point for me, when the Pope spoke extemporaneously,” Martin said. “My wife turned to me and said, ‘This is spectacular!’ When you put down your notes, you get a sense of the man. He shared his heart — which is the heart of a father — when speaking to us.”
Politics and the church
The vast majority of people who encountered Pope Francis either in person — or simply by watching on TV — felt elated and energized by his visit.
Still, there were naysayers on the political Left and Right.
Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College and presenter of two talks at the World Meeting of Families, noted the tension for Pope Francis’ critics.
“You have people on the Left who were really upset that he didn’t say ‘yes’ to same-sex unions,” explained O’Donnell, a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter. “One theologian from Fordham University was incensed by the comment Pope Francis made about mothers-in-law. Then you have traditional Catholics who don’t trust the media. He did speak about abortion to the U.S. bishops. Some wanted him to speak about it more.”
Ultimately, O’Donnell said, those who learned something from the papal visit were those who truly listened and read the Holy Father’s speeches thoughtfully and with an open heart.
“Some conservatives feel that Pope Francis should have said specific things, but this is arrogant,” said O’Donnell. “Every time he spoke about the family, he was speaking about the normal understanding of men, women and their children.”
O’Donnell underscored the fact that while the secular media tends to paint the Catholic Church as always saying “no,” Pope Francis underscored that Catholicism is a “yes” to Jesus. Michael Warsaw, president of EWTN, concurs.
“The problem in America is that we tend to impose political constructs of the Left and Right on the Church and the Pope,” said Warsaw, a member of Legatus’ Washington, D.C., Chapter. “It doesn’t work and leads to incorrect conclusions.
“Pope Francis is a Pope of gestures more than words. He has a different style than the past two popes, but that doesn’t mean he is less Catholic or less committed to the Gospel.”
In fact, people will remember Pope Francis’ gestures on this trip more often than his words — blessing handicapped children, visiting the homeless and prisoners, visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor and meeting with Kim Davis.
“As someone on the front-lines of the HHS battle,” Warsaw continued, “these gestures were very meaningful to me and encouraging. He told journalists on the plane back to Rome that conscientious objection is a human right — and we have a right to live out our faith in the public square.”
Living out the Catholic faith in the public square during this papal visit became a “super reality.” The Catholic pride that came through was, perhaps, the biggest miracle of all.
“Our young students at Catholic University are taken by Pope Francis,” said Garvey. “He is an unlikely media celebrity. He wears clunky shoes, speaks bad English and uses a small Fiat. But he speaks volumes through his gestures. And our young people are just drawn to him.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
Legatus writer’s joy-Filled papal experience
I had a surreal moment on Sept. 27 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on my way home from covering the papal visit.
First, the TV screen at my gate was showing the World Meeting of Families closing Mass, uninterrupted by commercials. At one point, my daughter was thirsty and I walked around the airport to find her a bottle of juice. At every restaurant, there were multiple TV screens on — all airing the Holy Father’s homily. At every newsstand, every newspaper and magazine cover featured Pope Francis.
Everyone at the airport was listening intently to the Holy Father.
“They can’t all be Catholic,” I thought. “What’s going on?”
Something was going on because I saw Pope Francis capture people’s hearts on this trip.
I saw it everywhere: When I had to catch a cab and tell the driver I was going to cover a papal event, the driver would wish me well. When I had to pass through police barricades to get to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one policeman gushed about how lucky I was. The doormen at my parents’ apartment could not wait to hear what it was like for me to have seen the Pope. My friends waited six hours in Central Park to see the Pope drive by for five seconds.
Everyone said it was worth it.
Security had us journalists go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral seven hours ahead of time. We waited patiently for the Pope to arrive. The hours flew by and nobody complained. Not even me!
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi
When Pope Francis finally did walk into the Cathedral, it was as though an electric force had suddenly permeated the atmosphere. Something was different and everyone could feel it in the air.
Some of the journalists near me were practicing Catholics. But not everyone. One woman in particular who wrote for a business magazine started weeping openly when the Holy Father walked in. When I looked at her, she said, “I’m supposed to be a jaded journalist, so why am I crying?”
Perhaps it was the way Pope Francis sweetly waved at everyone — or the way he went to bless every person bound in a wheelchair. Perhaps it was the simple words he spoke during the vespers service, telling us the importance of counting our blessings.
“There is something unique about the papacy,” Matthew Pinto, president of Ascension Press, told me. “There is something going on beneath the surface when people encounter the Pope. It’s a movement of theSpirit and a deep resonance, whether people know it or not.”
That’s why even jaded journalists, tired policemen and Indian taxi drivers felt something when Pope Francis came to town. New York City became an extremely difficult place to get around — and people could not have been more pleased.
USCCB: Papal Visit