I have been blessed to be able to follow closely Pope Francis’ visit with us here in the USA. I was sure that the Pope’s visit on Saturday and Sunday at the World Meeting of Families would be my favorite (and maybe it still will be!), but I have been deeply moved by the first three days of the visit of Pope Francis—both his generous sharing of himself with us, and by his fatherly words to us.
St. John Paul II was “my” Pope, and I will never be able to fully express how much as a spiritual father and guide he has influenced my life. Since Pope Francis has become Pope, I have listened attentively to him, cherished his wisdom, felt understood, challenged, and led—especially in terms of how to evangelize in a pastoral way. What I expected in this visit was that I would come to understand Pope Francis’ thought better, that I could learn from the way he is a pastor—how he encounters and dialogues with everyone. What I didn’t expect was for my relationship with him—long-distance that it is—to fundamentally change. On this visit, Pope Francis has become a spiritual father.
The origin of the word “Pope” can be traced back to the word for “Dad” in Greek or “father” in Latin. What does a loving father do for his children? He loves them, teaches and guides them, reminds them of their heritage, of who they are and what is important and what is dangerous, and challenges them to strive for happiness. Pope Francis has done all of that for me, in just these few days.
Here are five ways that Pope Francis has touched my heart during his visit so far:
1. Pope Francis comes to us in love.
“The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind” (Pope Francis to the bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral).
Pope Francis has told us flat out that he is happy to be here with us when he arrived, that he feels that he is at home with us, that he is here to testify to God’s love to everyone. It’s so obvious, of course, from how his face lights up when he meets people, how he really takes time to talk to individuals, how he stepped past his security detail and plunged into the crowd at Catholic Charities in Washington D.C., the way he is magnetically drawn to children (and they are drawn to him). His joy is like the pull of gravity—it just can’t be ignored.
2. Pope Francis seeks a genuine encounter with everyone he meets.
In her interview with New England Cable News, Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan explains how Pope Francis’ Latin heritage of “encuentro” is enriching the entire Church: going out to meet others where they are, and when with someone, focusing entirely on them. The Pope is open with us and he asks us in turn to be open with those who are vulnerable.
Practically speaking, Pope Francis shows us how to do this:
- Authenticity. Perhaps most important in creating a genuine encounter is that we first have to be genuine. Pope Francis is hugely popular above all because he is real with us. His honesty, enthusiasm, integrity, joy, humility, compassion, readiness to admit mistakes, openness to others—all of these qualities reveal the true man, the true priest, the true pastor that is Pope Francis.
- Open dialogue—we begin with what we have in common, so that we can build on that foundation. (For example in Congress, the Pope talked about the Golden Rule. But in a nuanced way, he also voiced his concerns about the ways Congress has not protected the poor and vulnerable among us. Sometimes it may take a second reading to fully understand the fine distinctions he makes. The Pope begins by affirming common ground, and uses nuanced language especially in areas of disagreement. This communication style, this pastoral approach really works for Pope Francis, because people are listening to him. He speaks about this in his message to the bishops.)
- Truly listen and get to know the other. We know that Pope Francis has been listening because each of his talks has been specifically addressed to the concerns and needs of those whom he’s met with—for example, his talk to Congress was very different from his message to the bishops. He makes me think of Saint Paul who said about being an apostle, “I make myself all things to all people” (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23). This kind of listening and encounter means that we leave behind our own concerns, our ego, our selfishness.
- Respond in love, with the love of Christ. The Pope reminded the bishops: “Remember to keep focused on the core which unifies everything: ‘You did it unto me’ (Mt 25:31-45).” At Catholic Charities, the Pope spoke about how “Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters.” He is asking us to let our encounters grow into relationships, relationships that are loving, tender, and merciful.
3. Like a good father who knows us well, Pope Francis shares our experiences, reminds us what our gifts are, and warns us of the pain and the dangers that we are subject to, all according to our vocation.
The Pope has done this in his homilies or messages with each group he has met so far: U.S. politicians, world leaders, those who are homeless, the bishops, the priests and religious, school children, and he will do this shortly with families, today and tomorrow at the World Meeting of Families!
Two of the Pope’s messages touched me very deeply. One of these was his homily to priests and religious at Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday evening. The Pope was very encouraging—he told us women religious in the U.S. that he loves us very much and he understands the tremendous challenges that we face. But the Pope also invited the priests and religious, as his co-workers in the Gospel, to reflect and examine ourselves on: gratitude and our commitment to hard work (or self-sacrificing service). He pointed out to us the dangers of worldliness, especially thinking of the Church’s mission in human terms of efficiency, rather than as God sees it; or allowing worldly consolations to distance us from self-giving service. His homily really hit home with me; I will base my next monthly retreat on it.
4. Pope Francis offers hope and encouragement for those who are suffering, weary, discouraged.
He is not afraid to reach out and touch our woundedness. I will simply share a couple of my favorite quotes from his talks this week:
“There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”
“In Jesus, God himself became Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who walks alongside us, who gets involved in our lives, in our homes, in the midst of our ‘pots and pans,’ as Saint Teresa of Jesus liked to say.”
“Prayer unites us; it makes us brothers and sisters.”
“In prayer our hearts find the strength not to be cold and insensitive in the face of situations of injustice.”
“Whenever a hand reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ,
to dry a tear or bring comfort to the lonely,
to show the way to one who is lost or to console a broken heart,
to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth,
to forgive or to offer a new start in God…
know that the Pope is at your side and supports you.
He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age,
but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.”
5. Pope Francis invites all of us to joy.
He wants us to be happy—truly happy and fulfilled. Because he himself knows true joy, he can confidently invite us to join him on that same path of joy: following Christ. If you want to know how the Pope sees himself and his mission, read or watch his entire speech to the bishops in Washington, D.C. In brief, he sees himself as someone who joyfully proclaims Christ:
“It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake.”
And during the canonization of St. Junípero Serra, Pope Francis explains further (in one of my favorite quotes of the week):
“The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”
These are just five ways that Pope Francis has touched me deeply during his visit to Washington, D.C., and New York. How has he touched your life? I hope that you share one of those ways here online, or with a family member or friend. If you can, don’t forget to listen to him this weekend as he speaks to us about the beauty and importance of the family’s vocation to love.
For an updated list of all the homilies and speeches of Pope Francis in the USA, visit here for his homilies (at Mass or Vespers), and here for his other speeches.
Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP
Daughters of St. Paul