Philadelphia — Pope Francis’ six-day U.S. trip will be as memorable for his deeds as his words, from visiting with homeless people in Washington, to praying with prisoners in Philadelphia and meeting with victims of church sex abuse.
The pontiff concluded the final leg of his visit here Sunday with a late afternoon mass after visiting with U.S. bishops, assault victims and inmates.
Jesus “asks us to go through life, our everyday life, encouraging all these little signs of love as signs of his own living and active presence in our world,” Francis said during his homily.
The visit included several firsts, including Francis’ maiden trip to the states. He delivered the first papal address to Congress and canonized the first saint on U.S. soil. Francis also led an interfaith service at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, emphasizing a theme established during his three-year papacy of reaching out to other faiths.
“This is a guy who teaches not only in words but in actions,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”
“Going to a prison in Philly, going to meet with immigrants and undocumented people in New York — all of these things are ways of communicating his message. These are his people — those he wants to speak for. Those at the margins — ‘throwaway’ people who haven’t benefited from the economic prosperity of the rest of society.”
Diane and Bill Thelan of Pewamo, Michigan, who made the trip to Philly to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, were thrilled to secure a spot in the ticketed area of the parkway that allowed them to take Communion and watch the Mass on a large screen.
“My impression is, if we don’t take what we’ve gathered here and go home and love our families — our wives, our husbands, our children, our neighbors, whoever God puts in our lives — then our week’s been a failure,” said Bill Thelan.
“Pope Francis just reiterated that — we really need to love one another. We all know hate don’t work, so it’s try the love. A lot of our issues will go away if we start to love one another.”
Reese said Francis has proved he can influence the political conversation in the United States. Candidates for the presidency in 2016 have been asked for their responses to what Francis said about reconciliation, refugees and the poor, among other subjects.
Brian Porter-Szucs, a history professor at the University of Michigan, noted the trend of Catholics gradually voting more for Republicans than they had historically during the past 30 years. This has happened as the party’s stance on abortion and some other social issues attracted Catholics from the Democratic Party.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if that trend reversed itself. You can’t listen to his speeches here in the U.S. and spin them for the Republican platform,” said Porter-Szucs, pointing to Francis’ support for welcoming immigrants and stemming man-made contributions to global warming.
“Having said that, it’s hard to appropriate him for the Democrats also, considering his opposition to abortion and contraceptives,” added Porter-Sucs, who teaches a class on the Catholic Church in the modern world.
A ‘new face’ of Catholicism
A major question for the Catholic Church will be what kind of boost, if any, it might see in its pews and seminaries as a result of the so-called Francis effect. Roughly 1 in 3 Americans raised Catholic have left the U.S. church.
“They don’t like the institutional church all that much, but they like this pope. Some of them are asking themselves, maybe we ought to give the church a second chance?” Reese said of the former Catholics.
“The problem is that Catholics live their faith in the local church — in the parishes. … In order for Francis to be successful, the bishops, clergy and the people have to adopt his priorities and especially adopt his style — his way of being a pastor who’s compassionate and embraces people.”
The Rev. Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, said Francis is the fourth pope to visit the United States, and crowds have always massed to see the pope.
“What we don’t want is just a fan club. Responding to a charismatic figure isn’t enough to have full effect in a church as large and as ancient as the Catholic Church,” Sirico said.
“The real test of the ‘Francis effect’ — its durability, its effect on the church as a whole — is going to be the number of vocations, the number of people who come back to the church, not just people who are amused or enchanted with a new celebrity.”
Francis is putting a “new face” on Catholicism for people who were angry for understandable reasons like the priest sex-abuse scandal and cover-up, Sirico said.
“We’ve turned the page on that now. That’s not the primary conversation we’re having anymore,” he said.
Sirico also sees the church moving beyond the hot-button issues of abortion, contraception, homosexuality and female priests.
“He’s broadening the whole question — not by denying the (church’s) tradition but by broadening the people’s experience of Catholicism,” Sirico said. “They’re not only encountering the church by just saying ‘no’ to something. He’s really calling people to a beautiful vocation of love and compassion.”
Downtime creates dialogue
The pope’s visit attracted hundreds of pilgrims from Michigan to Philadelphia. John Ashmore, a deacon at St. John Paul II Parish in Cedar Springs outside of Grand Rapids, said the highlight of his weekend in City of Brotherly Love was spending time with family and complete strangers.
“We got stuck waiting in line for four hours. And we began talking with people — we met an Episcopalian from here, another Catholic couple from here, and a group from Peru. What struck me is this event is causing us to stop and listen to each other, and to create dialogue,” Ashmore said, noting Francis is using that word repeatedly in the United States.
“You change hearts with a dialogue — not with a discussion. In a dialogue, you listen to each other.”
His daughter, Amy Pereira, said it seemed the pope himself this weekend was listening more than he was giving homilies or speeches.
“There was a sense of hope as we joined all together to worship,” Pereira said. “Pope Francis really stressed the importance of doing the ordinary in extraordinary ways, especially in our everyday family life.”
Joe Gall, the director of campus ministry at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School & Academy, spent the weekend with 400 students from Jesuit high schools around the country.
They got up early Sunday and staked out prime viewing spots at Logan Circle for Sunday’s outdoor Mass.
“To me, it is amazing to witness so very, very, very, very many folks coming together to hear this message that our pontiff just embodies in such a humble way. You can just feel this energy, this enthusiasm, this excitement, and this is just something to behold. You know, you’re not in it alone,” Gall said.