It’s been quite a week! I was delighted to be among those who welcomed our Holy Father to the United States. As his Alitalia aircraft rolled to a stop at Joint Base Andrews, the crowd was excited and joyful. A person who works at Andrews told me that over the years she had seen many dignitaries arrive but this was different. “It’s not about power but love,” she said. She was on the mark. The Holy Father came to our country as a missionary of mercy. How happy I was to greet this “missionary” personally on behalf of our archdiocesan family of faith.
The next day the bishops of the United States joined the Holy Father for prayer at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. Afterward, Pope Francis spoke to us bishops, offering words of encouragement. Like millions of people of all walks of life, I experienced his pastoral love. I felt he was drawing near to me and my brother bishops to encourage us in our work as pastors. He thanked us for all that the church in the United States does to assist the poor, to protect the vulnerable and to educate the young. In thanking us, he was really thanking all of you who make possible these ministries of service.
He also challenged us to continue engaging those we serve and the wider culture in courageous and faith-filled dialogue. He urged us to have special love and concern for the newly arrived in our midst while also expressing his deep love and affection for the sisters and priests who serve all God’s people and his church with tireless dedication.
In the course of his talk to the bishops, he mentioned the first diocese in the United States, namely, Baltimore. When I greeted him at the end of his talk, I thanked him for mentioning our archdiocese and also for mentioning St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Later that day, the Holy Father canonized St. Junípero Serra. Mass was celebrated on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington late in the afternoon. As I made my way to my seat, I was happy to see many members of the Archdiocese of Baltimore who took part in the Mass (see page 9).
As you know, St. Junípero was born on the island of Majorca. Talented and full of promise, he joined the Friars Minor (Franciscans) where he excelled in his studies. Yet in 1749, he boarded a ship named for Our Lady of Guadalupe (!), and made his way to Mexico and California.
There, St. Junípero, like Pope Francis, was a tireless missionary. Everywhere he went, he planted the seeds of faith. He drew close to the native peoples and defended their rights against the civil powers. Pope Francis held up this new saint as an example of missionary love that always moves forward, always looks ahead. As we, here in the archdiocese, focus on what it means to be missionary disciples, St. Junípero is a wonderful role model and a powerful intercessor for priestly vocations.
While in Washington, Pope Francis was welcomed at the White House where he offered support for the efforts of the bishops to defend religious freedom. Later that day, he made an impromptu visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor who are courageously struggling against the HHS mandate that would involve them in facilitating abortifacients, sterilizations, contraceptives and reproductive counseling for family members of
Pope Francis returned to the importance of religious freedom in his address to the Congress and his talk at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He stressed that religious freedom is a precious right given to everyone by God. This universal right is not merely the right to worship but the right to proclaim the faith in the public square and to live our faith. He reminded us of those who are being persecuted, even martyred, for their faith in the Middle East and elsewhere.
On the plane going back to Rome he also defended the right of conscientious objection. He linked his defense of religious freedom with service to the common good, especially the poor, the vulnerable and the immigrant. As the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, I was gratified by his words and inspired by his way of communicating the importance of religious freedom.
During his visit, Pope Francis often spoke about care for God’s creation. Building on the teaching of his predecessors, he spoke of the earth as our common home and our responsibility to care for it, not merely as an ecosystem but as a place God gave us for human flourishing. He noted especially how environmental deterioration disproportionately affects the poor and called for sustainable development. The pope brings a moral voice to one of the central debates of our time. As many of you know, on Oct. 7, the archdiocese will sponsor an evening on the pope’s environmental teachings found in “Laudato Sí’.”
Last but not least, was the Holy Father’s teaching on marriage and family. Indeed it was the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia that brought him to our shores. Through his homilies and talks, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of married love. He is keenly aware of the challenges marriage and family face in our country, including the redefinition of marriage. In the face of those challenges Pope Francis encouraged families in their struggles. He told us that, in families, little gestures of love count for a lot.
He urged that the church and families form “an alliance” – that the church in our country see the family as its closest partner in spreading the Gospel and serving the common good. His words about the family were tender and loving. He shared with us the church’s teaching in a way that connects with the joys and challenges of so many families. He concluded by celebrating a beautiful Mass for families in Philadelphia before a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Many from our archdiocese were there, including pilgrims who came on foot all the way from Baltimore.
Throughout the pope’s visit, I was amazed at his stamina and his deft touch. Without glitz, he was a star but his stardom was illumined by the light of Christ. He came as a missionary of mercy so that we might be renewed and refreshed in tearing down the walls that divide us and in finding the way to unity in truth, in love, and in service to others. May God bless Pope Francis and may God bless the Archdiocese of Baltimore!