Pope CFecteauCarmina Chapp, associate director of online theology programs, reflects on this historic occasion.

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States was an amazing experience for me as a Catholic theologian. Having had the privilege of representing Saint Joseph’s College at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, I was able to attend the Papal Mass on the Ben Franklin Parkway to conclude his visit. Throughout the week, I would catch highlights of the Pope’s various speeches in Washington D.C. and in New York. His message was timely, consistent, and universal.

My friend and Saint Joseph’s colleague Dr. Susan Timoney serves as Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.  It was her responsibility to work logistics for the papal parade in Washington, D.C. She and her staff, and a myriad of volunteers, succeeded in making the event a safe and memorable experience for everyone.

“The crowds were huge, but the spirit was joyous!,” she told me. “The ability for the Pope to be able to communicate ‘I hear you, I want to assure you that you are loved and not alone.’ For me, I feel like he is really challenging us to ask ourselves what we can do to encounter people in a way that we imitate Jesus' invitation to Come and See. What do they need to see or experience in order to accept the invitation?”

She, along with another Saint Joseph’s colleague, Fr. Frank Donio, SAC, Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center in Washington, D.C., provided commentary for the papal events for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which streamed the Pope’s speeches live throughout his stay in the United States.

During the Pope’s address to Congress, friends kept texting me that the Pope was talking about Dorothy Day – a personal hero of mine. My husband and I run the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was quite affirming to hear him mention her. His words to the bishops of the United States were beautiful – urging them to pray and stay close to Christ, looking to God for direction.

My niece texted me from New York City to tell me she got a glimpse of the Pope’s arm out the window of his Fiat. It was edifying to see the younger generation take an interest in the papal visit. This was clearly the case at the World Meeting of Families, where I met many young families excited to see the Pope.

Attendees of the Papal Mass in Philadelphia filled the Ben Franklin Parkway. Though there were hundreds of thousands of people of a wide variety of nationalities, you could still feel an intimacy. It was peaceful, and people were kind to one another. There was a reverent atmosphere throughout the Mass. Even though the Pope was almost a mile away from where I was standing, I was participating in the celebration as if he were right in front of me. We all were, responding to the Mass parts and standing and kneeling at the appropriate times, just as if we were in a church (of course, the jumbotron helped!). It was a tremendous experience of the universality of Catholicism.

In his homily, Pope Francis warned us not to be “scandalized by the freedom of God who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike” and called us to an authentic faith. This was consistent with all his speeches throughout his U.S. visit. Something I noticed was how unpolitical the Pope was, even though he was speaking on politically charged issues. As Catholics in the United States of America, we tend to see things is political categories of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. The Pope called all people, regardless of their political leanings, to be authentic in how they love their neighbor, to not let political alliances interfere with doing what is good and just and right, and to work together toward the common good. He spoke of the positive influence each person can have by bringing love to each other, particularly in the family. I appreciated how he emphasized the good that is possible, and how the gospel is so far beyond everyday politics.

When I was young, I was inspired by Pope John Paul II. As a theologian, I was affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI. Now, I find myself motivated by Pope Francis to live this faith in a radical way. Participating in this papal visit was a true blessing, and an experience I will not soon forget.

This story originally appeared in the Lakes Region Weekly.

Photo: Camilla Fecteau