By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Msgr. John Enzler, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., knew several months in advance that Pope Francis might stop by a Catholic Charities meal program during his U.S. visit. But few people could know about it until the visit was confirmed. It was challenging to keep a secret because so much work needed to be done, said the priest who has family ties in Davenport. His sister, Eileen O’Brien, is a teacher at All Saints Catholic School in Davenport. Her son, Tim O’Brien, an Assumption High School graduate (2011), works for a Catholic Charities program in D.C. and helped serve the noonday meal that Pope Francis visited Sept. 24.
St. Maria’s Meals, a program begun several years ago because Msgr. Enzler thought hungry people in shelters needed a more substantial meal, serves anywhere from 250 to 400 people every Wednesday night outside Catholic Charities headquarters. It’s a take-out meal, with many people walking across the street to eat their dinners under a library overhang.
But for the pope’s visit, guests ate beneath a huge tent erected in the street. The number of guests was limited to 300 diners, about 50 staff members and another group of about 50, including Catholic Charities board members.
Tim O’Brien, one of the servers, said he received that privilege because Catholic Charities was looking for people who had experience serving St. Maria’s Meals. The 2015 graduate of Loras College in Dubuque works for Behavioral Health Services of Catholic Charities and previously interned for the organization. He has plenty of experience serving St. Maria’s Meals.
He helped serve plates of teriyaki chicken, pasta, salad, dinner roll and dessert. Before serving began, O’Brien said he was able to snap couple of good photos because he and the other volunteers knew the order of events. When the Holy Father walked into the tent, “everyone was so joyful and happy,” O’Brien said. Pope Francis blessed the meal and made a beeline to visit with diners.
“He was completely the people’s pope,” O’Brien said. “He just lit up. He went to the crowd of all the clients and everyone there. I got to shake his hand.”
O’Brien wondered whether he’d get into trouble with the Secret Service for possibly getting in the way. But he ended up next to the pope and shook his hand. “I said, ‘Welcome to the U.S. Pope Francis. Thank you for coming.’ He was saying ‘Bless you’ to everyone and he said it to me. It was really cool.”
Msgr. Enzler noted that Catholic Charities is on the campus of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Pope Francis spoke to clients of Catholic Charities’ programs and with parishioners before entering the tent.
The priest escorted the Holy Father to the meal site, but they had only enough time to greet one another. “It wasn’t about me,” Msgr. Enzler said. “I introduced him to Catholic Charities. It was all about the work of truly caring for the poor. We were both headed to our mission to take care of the poor.”
Pope Francis did, however, give Msgr. Enzler a beautiful chalice to be used in Catholic Charities’ chapel. The priest gave the Holy Father a book containing thousands of names of individuals who have pledged to “Walk with Pope Francis” by praying, learning more about the Holy Father or providing service. It should be something simple and doable, added Msgr. Enzler, who fulfilled his own pledge to spend a night with the homeless before Pope Francis’ visit. The Catholic Charities CEO encouraged people in the Davenport Diocese to visit the website walkwithfrancis.org and participate in the ongoing pledge.
Msgr. Enzler said his lasting impression of Pope Francis is “his smile, his engaging spirit, his complete commitment to those who are less fortunate. He’s one of my heroes because he’s committed to the poor and the vulnerable. I want to be like him as a priest who is able to welcome and invite and open our arms wide for all of who come our way.”
For O’Brien, “it was a blessing to be there and learn from him.”