Pope Francis began his first historic visit to the United States, arriving in Washington DC on the afternoon of September 22, 2015. After greeting President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, their families, US bishops and an enthusiastic crowd at Joint Base Andrews, the Holy Father spent the evening at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See.
On Wednesday September 23, Pope Francis joined President Obama at the White House and addressed the American people. It had been highly anticipated that the Holy Father would speak on migrants, refugees and immigrants, groups of particular concern in the Catholic tradition and in Pope Francis’ teaching, statements and personal encounters. Empathy with and love of immigrants are recurrent themes in Scripture and in Catholic teaching and the Holy Father began his first speech in the United States by identifying with immigrants and recognizing their contributions. “As the son of an immigrant family,” he said, “I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.” He added that “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”
After leaving the White House, Pope Francis circled the Ellipse in the Popemobile through an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 50,000. On Constitution Avenue, the Holy Father called over a five-year-old girl whose father had lowered her over the barricades. The girl handed him a letter she had written, which requested that he urge President Obama and Congress to pass immigration reform and to keep immigrant families together.
Pope Francis joined the US bishops for a midday prayer at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. In his address to the bishops, the Holy Father spoke at length on the mission of the Catholic Church, its style of evangelization, and its concern for persons on the margins of society. His address raised many of the themes that undergird Catholic teaching on immigrants. Early in his address, he praised the work of the Catholic Church in America:
“I thank you most heartily for your generous solidarity with the Apostolic See and the support you give to the spread of the Gospel in many suffering areas of our world. I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit. I am well aware of the immense efforts you have made to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity. I also appreciate the efforts which you are making to fulfill the Church’s mission of education in schools at every level and in the charitable services offered by your numerous institutions. These works are often carried out without appreciation or support, often with heroic sacrifice, out of obedience to a divine mandate which we may not disobey.”
He also evoked the Catholic Church’s migrant tradition, saying “I do not feel a stranger in your midst. I am a native of a land which is also vast, with great open ranges, a land which, like your own, received the faith from itinerant missionaries.”
Later, he spoke to how the Church should work to further its mission and agenda in an often difficult environment:
“I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.
And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
He described the mission of the bishops as one of “solidify[ing] unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven” and said it was “imperative … to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes and generations.” In a statement that has direct implications for the US immigration reform debate, he called the “forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy … a privileged moment for strengthening communion, perfecting unity, reconciling differences, forgiving one another and healing every rift, that your light may shine forth like ‘a city built on a hill’ (Mt 5:14).” The themes of “communion” and “freedom and dignity,” he pointed out, are strongly implicated “in the lives of marginalized and imperiled persons.
In concluding his address, the Holy Father urged the Church to continue to embrace and benefit from immigrants:
“The Church in the United States knows like few others the hopes present in the hearts of these “pilgrims.” From the beginning you have learned their languages, promoted their cause, made their contributions your own, defended their rights, helped them to prosper and kept alive the flame of their faith. Even today, no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities. Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses. Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you. Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul; perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.”
Later in the afternoon, Pope Francis celebrated Mass and canonized Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar who founded missions across California in the 1700s, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In his sermon, the Holy Father again lauded the migrant and missionary tradition of the Catholic Church:
“Jesus sends his disciples out to all nations. To every people. [To all.] We too were part of all those people of two thousand years ago. Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message, his presence. Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity. Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly-dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone.”
The Holy Father will continue his Washington DC schedule by addressing Congress on Thursday morning where he is expected to speak on immigration and other issues such as climate change.
View Pope Francis’ full US schedule at http://www.popefrancisvisit.com/official-final-schedule-of-pope-francis-u-s-visit-2015/.
Watch live stream coverage of Pope Francis’ US visit at http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/holy-see/francis/papal-visit-2015/papal-visit-2015-live-stream.cfm.