By Christopher Gunty
The second major event for Pope Francis in the United States featured the pope joining the country’s bishops for mid-day prayer and an address to his brother bishops. As those gathered waited inside St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, the sound of helicopters overhead punched through, heralding the approach of the motorcade.
Eyes inside the church were trained on TV monitors, which showed a view looking out the front doors. A few minutes later, several motorcycles roared past, followed by a batch of police SUVs and then a few more large, intimidating black Secret Service SUVs. Shouts of “Papa Francisco” rang out.
And then, a small black Fiat appeared.
The congregation inside the church chuckled at the humble vehicle the pope chose as his chariot. And we knew this was going to be a different kind of papal visit.
The pope changed no church doctrine in his 18 speeches and homilies over six days. But he changed a lot of attitudes with his well-crafted words.
He spoke of the heavy burden bishops face which “seems to be ours alone, and so we drag it like weary oxen working a dry field.” He also reminded them of the “fathomless depths of God’s heart.”
He referred several times during the week, sometimes more than once in a single speech, to his age, noting that he wanted to be not just a name but a real presence, placing “a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage” on the bishops’ hands. He mentioned that he was called to the ministry of Peter at an advanced age.
He was at various times exhausted and elated, pensive and prophetic. Francis pursued a schedule that would weary anyone, much less a 78-year-old with one lung and sciatica.
He drew strength and energy from those he encountered. He especially perked up when he was with young people at a school in Harlem, N.Y., or along the parade routes. He soaked up the love from the homeless at a Catholic Charities meal program in Washington and from prisoners in Pennsylvania.
Francis exuded energy when he spoke off the cuff in response to the testimonies at the Festival of Families
He certainly drew energy from the Holy Spirit. No other source could provide the stamina he needed for the U.S. trip on the heels of three days in Cuba. As he told the bishops, “Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by ‘consuming fire from heaven’ (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit.”
Years ago, on one of St. John Paul II’s early trips, he was asked by a reporter on the plane returning to Rome if he had perhaps done too much on his journey. John Paul agreed that might be true, but added, “Sometimes it is necessary to do that which is too much.” John Paul started his papacy at age 58; Francis started his at 76.
Francis may have the same challenge, attempting to do “that which is too much.” He acknowledges that he is aging, and has alluded several times to resigning, if and when the time is right, as his predecessor Benedict XVI did.
Until then, we are grateful for his visit to our nation, for his extraordinary messages and for his exemplary actions. We pray that he will continue to experience the secret and sacred warmth of the Holy Spirit.
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