Few would argue that the pastoral visit of His Holiness Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families 2015 did not move our hearts deeply. The reason? Because Pope Francis moved our hearts deeply.
The presence of this gentle, humble, grandfatherly – indeed, holy man – transformed the awesome power of the papacy into something equally gentle, humble, grandfatherly and holy before our very eyes. He impressed everyone who saw or heard him as a genuine and loving pastor and shepherd of souls. Despite the phalanx of unparalleled security and massive crowds who turned out for even a glimpse of him, he touched us in ways that are, even now that he has departed our shores, yet to be realized.
The Bishop of Rome is, by divine plan, the Vicar of Christ. As such, he possesses Christ's own divine mission to teach, to govern and to sanctify the Church. He is also the Successor of Peter who shares these responsibilities, again by divine plan, with the Bishops as Successors of the Apostles.
These may sound like "institutional" characteristics – and, indeed, they are. But they are more than that. They are essential, internal dimensions of the one entrusted with the "keys of the Kingdom," promised by the Lord Jesus to Peter and to those called by vocation to collaborate with him.
Pope Francis is the universal pastor of the Church. It falls to him ultimately to evangelize all the baptized within the vast community of believers, taught, governed and sanctified locally by his fellow bishops in communion with him. Pope Francis fulfills his role by text, tone and gesture. In his case, each is instructive and we need to pay attention.
A Pope of text. During his visit, the Holy Father, spoke frequently in homilies, addresses and remarks. Composed with obvious care for American audiences in Washington and New York and Philadelphia, his words – written and spontaneous – will be repeated and replayed all over the world.
Despite the efforts to read other intentions into them by pundits of every stripe, religious as well as secular; Catholics as well as members of other faith traditions or no tradition; and "spin doctors" as well as literalists, Pope Francis did not once diverge from the clear, rich treasury of Catholic teachings in his remarks. On the contrary, his texts – even his "off the cuff" remarks – presented what the Church has long taught and believed. Alleged political underpinnings to his many messages were simply that: "alleged."
To the U.S. Bishops in Washington: "The innocent victims of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, violence and drug trafficking, the environment destroyed by man's predatory relationship – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters (Sept. 23, 2015).
To the United States of America: "As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families (Sept. 23, 2015)."
To Congress: "To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place … If we warn security, let us give security. If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities … Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family (Sept. 24, 2015)."
To the Clergy, Religious and Laity at Evening Prayer in New York: "I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with the spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel (Sept. 24, 2015)."
To the United Nations: "Integral human development and the full exercise of human dignity cannot be imposed. They must be built up and allowed to unfold for each individual, for every family, in communion with others (Sept. 25, 2015)."
To the Faithful at Mass in Madison Square Garden: "Jesus still walks our streets ... and fills us with hope (Sept. 25, 2015)."
To the Clergy, Religious and Laity at Mass in Philadelphia: "What about you? One of the great challenges facing the Church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the Church's mission (Sept. 26, 2015)."
To those gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia: "I ask you not to forget, like those who came before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions ... you are also called to be responsible citizens and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live (Sept. 26, 2015)."
To the Bishops in Philadelphia: "Our ministry needs to deepen the covenant between the Church and the family (Sept. 27, 2015)."
To the World Meeting of Families 2015 Mass: "Our Father will not be outdone in generosity ... Faith opens a 'window' to the presence of the Spirit...holiness is tied to little gestures ... Jesus tells us not to hold back these little miracles. Instead he wants us to encourage them, to spread them ... little signs of love (Sept. 27, 2015)."
These beautiful quotes do not do justice to the whole of the Pope's message during his visit to the United States. I would encourage everyone to read his entire texts, to study them, to reflect on his words.
A Pope of tone. As is often the case, it is not simply what we say but how we say it that communicates. Pope Francis is not a stylized orator. He is always and everywhere a simple preacher with words, with a message that everyone can understand. Whether in Italian, Spanish or English, he "speaks our language" because of the tone he takes. He is not a "culture warrior" speaking with a sword held high. Rather, he is a soft-spoken, frequently gently-animated preacher with something important to say. His manner is effective because he speaks from the heart, to the heart. That was clearly in evidence throughout his visit with us. No bombs thrown. No consternation shown. No sabre-rattling. The "way" he spoke with such gentleness and humility also has something powerful to teach, to say to all of us. Perhaps we should think about that the next time we are tempted to fire off a nasty email or letter.
A Pope of gesture. I had the privilege of seeing the Holy Father at close range in Washington and in Philadelphia. I even shook his hand. I couldn't help but witness the real love and joy his face radiated with every contact he made. He looked people in the eye. He made them feel important. He paused to comfort and bless people in wheel chairs; to kiss children lifted up to him by parents. He took the hands of people who never expected to come in contact with the Vicar of Christ. He embraced prisoners, immigrants, the homeless, the poor, as well as the wealthy and powerful, and did so as if there were no difference among them. His gestures were homilies and sermons in themselves, without any words needed.
The media has labeled Pope Francis "the people's Pope," and that certainly was the feeling evident in the crowds wherever he went. But every Pope belongs to the people as their teacher and shepherd. Every Pope, like each of us, has to be true to himself and use his personality to advance the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.
Pope Francis is an amazing, awesome man whose entire being is a sermon. In text, tone and gesture he teaches the mind and warms the heart. May he continue to be a Shepherd who knows and loves the sheep, who unites them in mercy and truth and who leads them home to the Church, where the Gospel of Christ transforms people into their truest, best selves.
Poignant Meeting -- This Associated Press picture captures Bishop O'Connellsmiling broadly as Pope Francis makes his way down the aisle of St. Matthew the Apostle Cathedral, Washington, Sept. 23. The Holy Father gathered with the bishops of the United States for mid-day prayer and then delivered a speech. Associated Press photo