Young people cheer as Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass and the canonization of Junipero Serra outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Sept. 23 (CNS photo/Matthew Barrick).

Festival of Encounter: Pope Francis in America

Ron Murphy, S. J., a Georgetown University German professor, was returning from the Catholic University of America, where Pope Francis had celebrated the canonization of St. Junípero Serra, when a woman approached him. “Father, Father,” she exclaimed, “this pope is wonderful. This city has never been as happy.” Her attitude was indicative of the euphoria that swept across Washington, D.C., during Pope Francis’ visit, a feeling shared even by many hard-boiled journalists in the nation’s capital.

In New York, too, broadcasters commented on the uniqueness of the day, on how people felt united, how they were smiling and kind to one another. In the long (ticketed!) lines waiting outside Central Park, New Yorkers often known for their sharp elbows waited amicably to pass security to get a glimpse of the pope as he rode by.

CNN’s Don Lemon, among the first television anchors to come out about his sexuality and an activist on L.G.B.T. issues, had not been very public about his Catholic schooling—until the pope came to town. In the excitement attached to Pope Francis’ visit, as he interviewed a Catholic high school student who had met the pope, he appeared free to speak on air of his Catholic years without apology and with some glee.

House Speaker John Boehner, a one-time altar boy, is known to weep publicly, but he surprised the nation by resigning his office the day after he had realized a decades-long dream of hosting a pope at a joint meeting of Congress. Soon to be free of the burdens of office, he sang “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” as he entered the room to meet with reporters and announce his resignation.

Two days earlier at the White House, it seemed Pope Francis and President Obama had a very special rapport with one another after Pope Francis helped broker the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba, as did the pope and Secretary of State John Kerry. Everywhere Francis went men and women felt better about themselves and freer to follow “the better angels of our nature.”

These few names were among the many who shared just a little in the spiritual freedom that, since the night of his election, has made Pope Francis unique even in an age of remarkable popes.

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama walk past the Rose Garden to the Oval Office at the White House Sept. 23. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo, pool) See POPE-WHITE-HOUSE Sept. 23, 2015.

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama walk past the Rose Garden to the Oval Office at the White House Sept. 23. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo, pool)

Festivity and Communion

“Festivity,” Charles Taylor tells us in his book A Secular Age, is one of the characteristic religious experiences of our day. It occurs in mass events like World Youth Day and, of course, the huge crowds at the World Meeting of Families. It is manifest, too, in the rise of pilgrimage among secular as well as religious people on journeys like the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and in the youth gatherings at contemporary shrines like the ecumenical monastery of Taizé.

“What is happening,” Taylor wrote, “is that we are all being touched together, moved as one, sensing ourselves fused in our contact with something greater, deeply moving or admirable; whose power to move us has been immensely magnified by the fusion.” During the pope’s apostolic visit, we Americans have been sharing, in other words, in a spiritual communion with the pope and one another. For many Americans, the papal visit was a prolonged and intense experience of festivity.

Pope Francis’ charisma runs deeper than the stature of his office. It derives from the exceptional conformity of his life to the central Gospel demand to minister to the little ones of this world. From dining to traveling, from dramatic events like his trip to meet refugees in Lampedusa to small gestures like visiting with a transgender man in the Vatican, in the busy round of his day he attends unceasingly to the world’s forgotten ones.

“I’m a Muslim,” Mostafa El Sehamy told the New York Times reporter Vivian Yee. “But I believe that maybe God sent this guy to unite everybody together.” Ilyse Shapiro, a Jewish volunteer for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, told Yee she had replied to her husband’s skepticism about her enthusiasm for Francis this way. “[The papal visit] transcends Catholicism. It transcends religion.” She explained, “This pope is speaking for the poor and the powerless. That is beyond religion.”

Longing for Holiness

Deep down people understand, as David Brooks writes in The Road to Character, “We don’t live for happiness; we live for holiness.” Holiness consists in an integrity of life, which people of every sort, believers and nonbelievers, Jews and Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, find palpable in Pope Francis. The pope’s presence was like the sun and rain. It came in such abundance that it uncovered the longings for holiness and community long buried within too many American hearts.

In Pope Francis’ theology of encounter, we find God in the face of the stranger. No line in his speech to Congress, a body divided over immigration reform, received louder and longer applause than his invocation of the Golden Rule. He told legislators with masterly rhetorical jujitsu, “The rule points in a definite direction,” that is, to welcoming migrants and refugees. “Let us seek for others,” he urged, “the same possibilities we seek for ourselves. Let us help others grow as we would like to be helped ourselves.”

The pope built attention to society’s outsiders into his trip, with visits in Washington to a Catholic Charities soup kitchen, where people struggling with homelessness or addiction or with criminal records dine; in New York’s East Harlem, with a diverse group of schoolchildren at Our Lady Queen of Angels elementary school; and in Philadelphia, with men in prison and, later, victims of sexual abuse.

Ideally, one of the outcomes of festive events is to break down differences between groups. When skeptics ask what the lasting effect of these six days will be, they are asking whether, when Francis returns to Rome, people will continue to reach across the divisions in our society and the borders of our nation to those in need. Will we ask ourselves, as he said at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington: “Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?”

In one of his most eloquent passages, he evoked for a congregation at Madison Square Garden in New York the dark shadows of the metropolis where so many of God’s faceless ones dwell:

In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change,” so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.

In the midst of the darkness, he told his listeners, “God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city.” Again and again, Pope Francis asked us to make the communion we enjoyed with one another in his presence real and effective in encounter with “the others” in our midst.

Pope Francis looks out at the Statue of Liberty while flying over New York Harbor on his way from New York to Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The End of Sectarian Catholicism

When Pope Francis explained his choice of name on becoming pope, he revealed an agenda based on the passions of his namesake: the poor, peace and the environment. But that did not quite tell the whole story. St. Francis’ overriding vocation was to renew the church.

While praying before the now familiar San Damiano crucifix near Assisi, he heard the Lord call, “Francis, rebuild my church,” and for some time he took that commission literally, repairing the dilapidated San Damiano Chapel and then other ruined churches and shrines around his native Umbria. In time, however, he realized that the call was to renew the church by recommitting it to the Gospel.

Legend has it that Pope Innocent III, one of the most imperious popes of the Middle Ages, dreamt that the
Basilica of St. John Lateran, the mother church of Rome, like those churches in Umbria, was collapsing but was held up by a little man in a brown tunic. Soon after the dream, legend has it, Innocent granted Francis and his “little brothers,” the Friars Minor, approval for their way of life, and they began to revitalize the Western church.

What we experienced last week was the Franciscan re-birth of the church—especially in the United States. Like his namesake, Francis puts the Gospel before everything, and living the Gospel life dramatically has been central to this reform. For Francis spiritual renewal must precede institutional reform. He has told us again and again what we must do, that we must go to “the peripheries,” embrace the poor, the migrant and the homeless and befriend them as Christ among us. He has made journeying to the peripheries as attractive to our contemporaries as the Poverello did in his day. He has shown us how to be “a church of and for the poor.”

Responding to the NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff’s question about the lasting impact of the pope’s visit, David Brooks said: “For some large number of people, this will be a turning point in their lives. And that’s sort of worth celebrating. In Philadelphia, or in Madison Square Garden tonight, [for] some people this will be the moment something very fundamental shifts in their lives. And politics rarely achieves that.”

Mr. Brooks, for whom humility is a key human virtue but one demeaned in this age of the self, went on to observe: “We emphasize the man so much, but what he’s saying is the product of 2,000 years of teaching, of thought, of prayer. And he’s the current exemplar. We sort of overemphasize the individual and underemphasize the institution, I think, throughout this visit.” The pope’s Gospel message is essentially the church’s message. What had people so excited was the joy of the Gospel.

The insightful church historian Massimo Faggioli also understood the ecclesial dimension of the visit. Writing in Huffington Post Italy, he noted that the most important context for assessing the outcome of the papal visit is intra-ecclesiastical. “Francis is facing a church that is among the most vital and energetic in the world,” he wrote, “but also one that is experiencing a state of schism.” As one who has “declared an end to the ‘culture wars’” in Catholicism, he explained, Pope Francis’ toughest job was to function as a pontifex, a bridge-builder, between people across generations and political ideologies.

Meeting with bishops, he pleaded, as he did with members of Congress, for an end to polarization and a commitment to dialogue. “Harsh and divisive language,” he told the bishops gathered in Washington, “does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

“Dialogue is our method,” he affirmed, “not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).” The address used the word dialogue no fewer than eight times.

Remember, he told the bishops, “Jesus’ church is kept whole not by ‘consuming fire from heaven’ (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who ‘heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked.’”

Pope Francis waves goodbye at Philadelphia International Airport Sept. 27. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

Pope Francis waves goodbye at Philadelphia International Airport Sept. 27. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, handout)

The dramatic opening of his homily the next day in Philadelphia painted his vision of a post-culture-wars U.S. church. On his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love, he told the congregation at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, he had learned “the story behind the church’s high walls and windows,” built in the 19th century to defend the faithful against nativist rioters. Then, with another jujitsu throw, he announced, “[T]he story of this church in this city and state is really not about building walls, but about breaking them down.”

“It is a story,” he continued, “about generation after generation of committed Catholics going out to the peripheries, and building communities of worship, education, charity and service to the larger society.” Invoking the example of Philadelphia’s native daughter St. Katharine Drexel, he asked the whole church, women especially, to take up their responsibility to “transmit the joy of the Gospel” to the world. The future of the church, he insisted, would require “a much more active engagement on the part of the laity.”

With a final bit of spiritual skill, he asked the ordained not to be threatened by the charisms of the faithful. “This does not mean,” he told them, “relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted; rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the church. In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”

At Independence Hall, where he addressed by name the bishops’ conference’s signature issue of recent years, religious liberty, he boldly resisted making a fuss about a scruple of law. Instead, he endorsed “a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such,” and he praised Philadelphia’s founding Quakers for modeling religious freedom and tolerance.

With ecumenical largeness of heart, he thanked all “those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love.” He departed too, I would think, with a prayer in his heart, that this church, “among the most vital and energetic in the world” but too long riven by bitter division, would become the effective sign and sacrament of unity it is called by Christ to be.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., a former editor in chief of America, holds the title Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development and is senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.