Pope Francis Challenges, Comforts, and Encourages America

by Annalise Deal


After holding the office of the papacy for just two and a half years, Pope Francis completed his first visit to the US this Sunday. His visit builds on a precedent of modern-day popes visiting the United States, most recently followed by Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit.  However, due to the profound celebrity status of Pope Francis in America, his visit was much more broadly anticipated, and has left Americans with a lot more to talk about.

Washington: After being greeted by the Obamas, Bidens and four schoolchildren from D.C. Catholic schools, the Pope immediately dove into politics, not shying away from any topic relevant to his Catholic faith. In his first speech on American soil on the White House lawn, he addressed the importance of religious freedom, treatment of immigrants, the climate change crisis, and called upon American’s to “support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world and to stimulate integral and inclusive models of development, so that our brothers and sisters everywhere may know the blessings of peace and prosperity which God wills for all his children.”


Following a parade through Washington D.C., he spoke at a prayer service for American Bishops. Though some anticipated that he would reprimand them for their treatment—and in some cases, cover-up—of the sexual abuse scandal, he declared that he had not come to “judge or lecture” but rather to encourage. The pontiff affirmed his own faith in American bishops to do what is right and just, and encouraged them to try to return to their roots as pastors and shepherds of the faithful by showing the love of Christ, not preaching complicated doctrine. He affirmed the dignity of all human life, and specifically asked that the bishops would show special love towards priests and immigrants. Priests, because they need to receive their own spiritual care; and immigrants, because they are in need of the support and care of the Church in a nation that is often hostile towards them.


His most political appearance of all, however, was his speech in front of a joint session of Congress. Pope Francis became the first pontiff to speak to Congress, and he certainly made waves. In his speech, he invoked the names of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as examples of Americans that ought to inspire our current vision and the mission for the future of the country.


However, his words were not all just nice, inspiring fluff. Pope Francis again referred to the plight of immigrants, challenging Americans to embrace and care for them. He again pushed for the necessity of addressing climate change, and specifically noted his belief that it is influenced by mankind—a direct jab at GOP congressmen who have said climate change is not caused by humans. The pontiff also slighted the Democratic side of the aisle, stating that he has been deeply troubled by the status of the family, which has been threatened by “fundamental relationships being called into question,” by which he presumably means the legalization of homosexual marriages by the Supreme Court this summer. Furthermore, he subtly invoked his view regarding the sinfulness of abortion by speaking of the need to “protect human life at every stage of development.” Overall, the speech emphasized the importance of caring for our world and those who inhabit it, especially the marginalized. In that vein, he followed his speech not by lunch with lawmakers, but rather with the homeless.


Also while in Washington, he canonized Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary to California largely responsible for the Catholic faith of much of the Latino world, and now the first saint to be canonized on American soil.


New York:  If Pope Francis was a bit frank with Congress, he was even more so when speaking to the U.N. General Assembly the following day. He laid out five major issues that he thinks are at the root of problems and strife in the world, all of which relate back to “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” He again focused on climate change, but went on to express his concern over the nuclear arms race, the extreme amount of world power in the hands of so few, the ineffectiveness of treaties, and the global disregard for the individual realities especially in warzones. To solve these major crises, he suggested a “juridical system” to check powerful nations, and sacrificial “revolution” to combat climate change, among other things.


Also while in New York the pope prayed at the 9/11 memorial and visited a school in East Harlem to demonstrate his solidarity with the poor and forgotten.


Philadelphia: In his final leg of the trip, Pope Francis attended the World Meeting of Families, where he encouraged the sanctity and absolute necessity of the family amidst today’s culture war.  He called families a “factory of hope,” and praised them for the love they reflect. “A love,” he said, “that points always back to God.” His language of the cosmic relation between God, man, and nature was present throughout his speech. “Before creating the world, God loved,” proclaimed the pontiff. In stark contrast to his trips to D.C. and New York, Pope Francis abandoned his script in Philadelphia in favor of joyfully responding to the testimony of families, "Love is celebration. Love is joy. Love is moving forward," he said.


On a more somber note in Philadelphia, he visited St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the site of two prominent reports of child abuse scandals, and subsequent attempts by the Archdiocese to cover them up. He spoke there both to bishops, and to several adults who had been abused by priests as children. He expressed the overwhelming pain and shame he feels on their behalf, saying, “I regret this profoundly.”


Also while in Philadelphia, he made an unannounced visit to St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school, where he blessed a new statue on campus.


Pope Francis’ visit will not soon be forgotten by Americans, nor by the pontiff himself. He said, upon leaving, that he was “surprised by the warmth of Americans, and the devoutness of the faithful.”

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