After making the short flight from New York to Philadelphia on Saturday morning, September 26, Pope Francis found himself standing in front of historic Independence Hall that afternoon, where he delivered an important address on the topic of religious liberty to the substantial crowd gathered on the Mall. While following his prepared text, the Holy Father also inserted a number of impromptu remarks to help flesh out his thoughts. He began by observing that the truths enshrined in our Declaration of Independence--that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights—“must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” The pontiff then highlighted a key aspect of religious liberty. “Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate,” Francis acknowledged. “But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.” Then the pope underlined what he had just read by adding off-the-cuff: “Because the religious reality, the religious dimension, is not a subculture. It is part of the culture of any people and any nation.”
As American Catholics and Christians whose religious freedom is increasingly threatened by the tyranny of radical secularism, these were important words for us to hear. We needed to be reminded that the Christian religion is inextricably woven into the fabric of our national culture, and that we should take pride in this fact rather than allowing militant secularists to intimidate us into being ashamed of it. “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality,” Francis proclaimed, “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
That evening at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Pope Francis participated in the Festival of Families, a spectacularly beautiful celebration of Catholic family life that marked the ceremonial climax of the World Meeting of Families. Here he laid aside his prepared text for the occasion, choosing instead to speak off the cuff about the beauty of family life to his on-site audience of about one million people from all over the world. Thanking the assembled families for their testimonies and their presence, the Holy Father assured them “that it is worthwhile to live as a family, that a society grows strong, grows in goodness, grows in beauty and truly grows if it is built on the foundation of the family.” He reminded them that when God sent His Son into the world to redeem fallen humanity, he came to live among us in a family through the loving obedience of Mary and Joseph.
“God always knocks at the door of hearts,” Francis said. “He likes to do this. It comes from His heart. But, do you know what He likes best? To knock on the doors of families and find families that are united, to find families that love each other, to find the families that bring up their children and educate them and help them to keep going forward and that create a society of goodness, of truth, and of beauty.” As usual when discussing this subject, the pope did not gloss over the difficulties of family life: “In families, we argue; in families, sometimes the plates fly; in families, the children give us headaches. And I’m not even going to mention the mother-in-law. But in families, there is always, always, the cross. Always…But, in families as well, after the cross, there is the resurrection. Because the Son of God opened for us this path.” Francis concluded his remarks to the tens of thousands of families present by reminding them to take special care of their children and their grandparents--whom he referred to respectively as the “strength” and the “memory” of a family--as “a sign of love that promises the future.”
“All of Us Need to Be Cleansed”
Around eleven on Sunday morning, September 27, after meeting with bishops, priests and seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Pope Francis went to visit more than one hundred male and female inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. This was one of the most memorable parts of our Holy Father’s visit to the United States because it gave such vividly personal expression to the theme of divine mercy that has defined his pontificate from the very beginning. The pope sat in a large wooden chair that had been handcrafted for the occasion by a team of male prisoners skilled in carpentry work. His address to the inmates was strikingly heartfelt and poignant, full of Christ-like compassion and encouragement for these men and women who had committed various crimes in the past. Francis acknowledged that their period of incarceration was “a painful time” not only for them, but for their families and society, and then warned that a family or society “which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.”
The Holy Father himself was offering a different example that morning, an example of compassion and solidarity, by personally identifying with these wounded children of God who had been relegated to the outskirts of society and who are often forgotten and marginalized by their free brothers and sisters. “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” the pope told the inmates. Recalling the Gospel scene in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, Francis reflected that life is a journey along different roads that leave their mark on us. “Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history,” he said. “All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed.”
“We know in faith that Jesus seeks us out,” the Holy Father continued. “He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet which hurt from travelling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey. He doesn’t ask us where we have been, he doesn’t question us about what we have done. Rather, he tells us: ‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me’ (John13:8)…Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust.” These encouraging words revealed the pastoral heart of Pope Francis—a compassionate and charitable heart that reaches out to everyone regardless of their background or their situation, offering hope for redemption through a personal encounter with Christ. The pope then criticized prison systems that carelessly neglect to heal the wounds of their inmates or to offer them hope for a better life. “It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said. “It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.”
After finishing his address, Pope Francis took time to greet most of the seated inmates individually. In a particularly poignant moment, he warmly embraced a male inmate who stood up to greet him, drawing a smattering of applause from the others. As the pontiff made his rounds and then bade the prisoners farewell, I was a bit disappointed that the commentary of Raymond Arroyo, Fr. Gerald Murray and Robert Royal on EWTN was mainly confined to the awful crimes these people had committed, the duty of those responsible for the common good to protect society from unjust aggressors, and the moral licitness of the death penalty as just punishment for murder. While everything they said may have been true, their rather clinical and juridical attitude towards this deeply moving, authentically Christian personal encounter of Pope Francis with the least of Christ’s brethren, seemed to evince just a bit of the rigorist tendency, persistently decried by Francis, of those who are so caught up in their knowledge of Church doctrine and legal matters that they cannot see the person in front of them. By zeroing in on the justice aspect, on doctrinal and criminal details, Arroyo and his fellow guests essentially missed the point of what the pope had just said and what he was now doing right in front of their eyes on the TV screen—performing two works of mercy, visiting prisoners and comforting the sorrowful. As Mother Teresa would remind us, these people sitting behind bars are Christ in his distressing disguise, and whatever we do for them, we do for Christ himself (Mt. 25:34). “’I was…in prison and you visited me’” (Mt. 25:35, 36).
Furthermore, the EWTN commentators neglected to affirm that these incarcerated men and women, like themselves, were made in the image and likeness of God and that they retained their innate human dignity, regardless of what they had done that had necessarily led to their confinement within these walls. Nor did they hint at the corruption and related issues affecting the current US criminal justice system, including the urgent need for prison reform and the sad reality that some of those incarcerated and executed each year are actually innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted. Finally, mention could have been made of the fact that human justice is never perfect, and that everything will be satisfactorily sorted out for all parties only by Christ Himself at the Last Judgment, where each of us Christians will be judged based not on our knowledge of the faith, but on how well we have put that faith into practice. May our prejudices not hinder us from following Pope Francis’ Christ-like example in this regard and encouraging others to do the same.
Faith and Love in the Family
That Sunday afternoon, under mostly cloudy skies, the Argentinian pontiff celebrated the much-anticipated Closing Mass for the World Meeting of Families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, another spectacular event which drew nearly 900,000 participants according to the official host, Archbishop Charles Chaput. In an apparent oversight, the pope’s homily was delivered in Spanish without translation of any kind, and I felt sorry for the English-speaking majority of the vast congregation present who essentially missed it. The Mass readings for that Sunday focused on how the Holy Spirit can act outside the visible confines of the Church, or the community, and how we should recognize and affirm such divine activity, even when it is manifested in unlikely places. In his homily, Francis alerted his hearers to “the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Mt 5:45), bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles”; such a temptation, he warned, “threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.” Explaining why Jesus’ condemnation of scandal was so harsh, the Holy Father added: “For Jesus, the truly ‘intolerable’ scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!”
Turning to the subject of faith, Pope Francis next spoke of the importance of “little gestures” of tenderness and affection that are learned in the family, such as a warm meal or a hug or a blessing. “Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home,” he said. “Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love.” Francis urged us to be open to these “little miracles of love,” these “prophetic gestures” that point the way to God’s unbounded love. He then asked whether we are living this way in our families and societies. The pope exclaimed, “Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of our own family and all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others!” Here he inserted an off-the-cuff remark, asking us family members whether we yell at each other or speak with love and tenderness.
In keeping with his theme of care for creation, Francis also asked what kind of world we are leaving to our children. “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions,” he proclaimed. “The urgent challenge of protecting our home includes the effort to bring the entire human family together in the pursuit of a sustainable and integral development.” Affirming marriage as “the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God,” the Holy Father concluded by praying that God may “grant to all of us, as the Lord’s disciples, the grace to be worthy of this purity of heart which is not scandalized by the Gospel!” At the end of the Mass, Francis thanked the assembled worshipers in English for their witness of family life and, as always, reminded them to pray for him.
A Stunning Success
Pope Francis clearly scored a massive hit with American Catholics and the general public during his unforgettable visit to our country. Perhaps more strikingly than any other foreign voyage he has yet undertaken, the pope’s whirlwind tour of America showcased the genius of Francis at its classic best. In both word and deed, our Holy Father proclaimed the truths we needed to hear with clarity and conviction, yet in an attractive way, while consistently manifesting an accurate understanding and sincere appreciation for our unique history and cultural heritage. He knew his audience more intuitively and was better prepared to visit the United States than most of us expected. In short, Francis surprised us once again with a brilliant performance—although it wasn’t surprising to see an increase in the respect and esteem of American Catholics and the general public for our beloved Shepherd in Christ following his brief but intense sojourn among us. Although decades will be required to fully assess the impact of this latest papal visit on the American Catholic Church and on our country in general, as well as to place it within an accurate historical perspective, we can safely conclude for the moment that Pope Francis’ Pastoral Visit to the United States was a stunning success, and that we will continue to reap its fruit for years to come.