Pope Francis drew three rounds of spontaneous and prolonged rounds of applause when, in his homily at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, on Sept. 24, he praised the women religious of the United States.
“In a special way I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you,’ a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much,” the pope stated.
It was a highly significant moment, and was in fact the third time in recent months that he has expressed his esteem and admiration for the great work they have done, and are doing in American church. It was clearly a moment for rejoicing, and blended well with the atmosphere of the evening and the theme of his homily.
America‘s Sam Sawyer, S.J. was able to speak with some women religious after the Mass and get their reactions to Pope Francis’ words.
“Our vocation is to be lived in joy,” Pope Francis told the 3,000 priests, consecrated women and men, and lay faithful gathered in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, to pray with him and listen to his words, on Thursday evening, Sept 23, and the millions following the ceremony by television or other media.
There was an atmosphere of immense joy, anticipation and excitement before the pope arrived at this renovated church that stands as a landmark in the history of American Catholicism. They cheered loudly and applauded when one of the organizers announced that Pope Francis had arrived in New York, but that paled in comparison to the jubilation when he actually arrived.
Francis personifies “the joy of the Gospel” in an extraordinary way as we have seen in Washington in these days, and now in New York. He is charming America, and he seemed to have reached the hearts of the members of Congress too this morning since they interrupted his fifty-minute talk 29 times.
After his visit to Congress, Francis drove to St. Patrick’s Church in Washington D.C., to meet a group of homeless people, and later that afternoon took the plane to New York’s JFK airport, where he boarded an helicopter that took him to Lower Manhattan, from whence he drove up Fifth Avenue to the cathedral amid scenes of great rejoicing and quite extraordinary security measures that seemed excessive for a pope who likes to be close to people and—as he said in Brazil—he does want to visit them in a glass cage.
The 3,000 people in the cathedral jumped to their feet, cheered and applauded and drowned the sounds of the organ when the pope entered the church accompanied by a beaming Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
After some private prayer, Pope Francis put on a green cope and presided over a magnificently sung vespers, and then went to the lectern.
Everybody expected him to begin his homily, but instead Francis said he wanted to address “our Muslim brothers and sisters with two sentiments.” The first sentiment related to the fact that in these days they are celebrating one of their high feasts: he sent them good wishes for this. His second sentiment related to the tragedy that happened in Mecca in recent days (when many died): here he expressed his closeness to Muslims at this tragedy and assured them of his prayers for those that suffered to the One Merciful God.
After that surprise announcement, he began his homily and told the congregation that “there is a cause for rejoicing here, although “you may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials.” He was alluding to the abuse of minors by priests scandal that had hit the American church like a very strong earthquake in the first decade of the new millennium.
Francis had already spoken about the terrible impact of the abuse scandal on the church when he spoke to 300+ bishops at St Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington D.C, yesterday, and many were surprised that he returned to this also tonight in St. Patricks.
“I know—he told the priests and bishops in New York—that, as a presbyterate in the midst of God’s people, you suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members… In the words of the Book of Revelation, I know well that you ‘have come forth from the great tribulation,’ and I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people.
Some in these days have criticized the fact that Francis did mention the victims yesterday, nor did he do so this evening, but they may have been too quick to criticize him. His visit to this country has not yet ended, and it cannot be excluded that he will meet victims here in these days as he has done in the Vatican.
In his homily, Francis also spoke about the joyful and creative history of the American church, beginning with “this beautiful Cathedral of Saint Patrick which was built up over many years through the sacrifices of many men and women.” He described it as “a symbol of the work of generations of American priests and religious, and lay faithful who helped build up the Church in the United States.”
Pope Francis acknowledged the help they had given to building up the church especially in the field of education. He recalled “how many priests and religious in this country played a central role, assisting parents in handing on to their children the food that nourishes them for life”, and many of them did so “at the cost of extraordinary sacrifice and with heroic charity.” He mentioned two: Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the country’s first free Catholic school for girls, and Saint John Neumann, the founder of the first system of Catholic education in the United States.
The first pope from the Americas said he had come to St. Patrick’s “to join you in prayer that our vocations will continue to build up the great edifice of God’s Kingdom in this country.” He offered two brief reflections “in the hope of helping you to persevere on the path of fidelity to Jesus Christ.”
The first concerns the spirit of gratitude. He said priests and religious “are called to find and radiate lasting satisfaction in their vocation.” But since this joy springs from a grateful heart for the many graces received, “It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received… and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way. Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts.” He urged them “to seek the grace of remembrance so as to grow in the spirit of gratitude.”
His second reflection related to the spirit of hard work. Francis explained that “a grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.”
But he warned that this spirit of generous self-sacrifice “can be dampened” in a couple of ways. First, “we can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world” whereas “the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, great humility.”
“The cross shows us a different way of measuring success,” he said. “Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus… and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, the failure of the cross.”
A second danger, he said, comes “when we become jealous of our free time, when we think that surrounding ourselves with worldly comforts will help us serve better.” The problem with this is that “slowly but surely, it diminishes our spirit of sacrifice, renunciation and hard work. It also alienates people who suffer material poverty and are forced to make greater sacrifices than ourselves.”
He said we need to learn how to rest in a way that deepens our desire to serve with generosity. “Closeness to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the exploited, the elderly living alone, prisoners and all God’s other poor, will teach us a different way of resting, one which is more Christian and generous.”
Knowing that some may have been surprised that he had chosen to speak in this way, Francis explained that he had wanted to speak to them about “gratitude and hard work” because “these are two pillars of the spiritual life.”
He concluded by telling them, “I know that many of you are in the front lines in meeting the challenges of adapting to an evolving pastoral landscape. Whatever difficulties and trials you face, I ask you, like Saint Peter, to be at peace and to respond to them as Christ did: he thanked the Father, took up his cross and looked forward!”