By Kent Ferris
For The Catholic Messenger
The opening event at the White House was fitting of the welcome that any head of state would receive minus the 21-gun salute. There were so many people with so much better access that I could only see Pope Francis on the jumbotron and couldn’t hear at all. When we made our way back to the National Press Club for lunch (sponsored by Catholic Charities USA) I stood in the lobby of the building and watched the closed captioned rebroadcast of Pope Francis’ comments. President Obama’s observation that the pope’s comments and presence are “shaking us out of our complacency” and that we are to proceed with “humility in service,” were insightful.
At the White House, Pope Francis mentioned he was looking forward to “days of encounter and dialogue.” He didn’t see coming to the United States as a series of speeches or Masses, but rather an opportunity to really meet people. His use of the word dialogue blows me away. I think people are struck by his genuineness and sincerity, so when he says he wants to dialogue, I take it that he wants to hear from those he meets.
The Papal Mass for the Canonization of Junipero Serra was a wonderful experience. It was the closest glimpse I got of Pope Francis. When he came to the front of the altar, I could see him, about 40 yards away. I have never been to a papal Mass, let alone a Mass for canonization. They had a booklet printed out, so it was easy to participate. I was concerned for Pope Francis because he looked very tired and yet, as any good and tired priest is capable of doing, he seemed to catch his second wind when he began his homily.
He shared in his homily that Jesus practically orders us to rejoice, and that to stave off a kind of apathy which becomes a habit, we are to remember Jesus is the answer and we are to in turn give ourselves away. He spoke of a “desire to show mercy,” and that our own experience with mercy “increases our joy in following.” Our challenge then is to “go out to tell the Good News to those who’ve lost the joy of living.” I will keep the words in mind as we prepare for and journey through the Year of Mercy.
As I reflect on this, I believe we are also challenged to be vulnerable so that others may also show God’s mercy to us. It is one thing to provide food, clothing or shelter to a brother or sister in need, another thing entirely to enter into relationship with those in great need so that they too can minister to us. This type of human encounter and dialogue might appear to some to be an inefficient use of time, but it is critical in allowing God’s presence to be experienced by everyone.
Out on the Capitol lawn for Pope Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress, I chose to be near the very back of the fenced-in section. The sound system and the jumbotron made seeing and hearing Pope Francis much easier. I was there almost two hours early as were thousands of others. I found a utility box cover to sit on in the grass as the morning dew evaporated. Sitting on the ground made it easier to strike up a conversation with those near me. I spoke with a man who had traveled from Texas through the night to be present for the pope’s speech to Congress. I spoke with a journalist and host of a national TV show for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. And I watched several young families with infants and toddlers. They wanted their children to be able to say they had “been there when.”
(Ferris is director of Social Action and Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Davenport.)