During the spring of 2008, I was a freshman at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I was nearing the end of my first year of school, preparing to enter into finals, and attempting to figure out what my plans were for the summer. A few months prior, it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI would be visiting the D.C. during his US Papal visit. Furthermore, he would be speaking at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and The Catholic University of America in subsequent days. To say I was a little excited for my first Papal Visit is a bit of an understatement. I remember vividly watching him ride in the Popemobile in front of the Basilica on the Wednesday of his arrival, the next day participating in the celebration of the Mass with Pope Benedict XVI in Nationals Park, and finally, seeing him drive near the Catholic University Law School lawn before his talk on the importance of Catholic Education. He greeted the crowds that came to see him. The people present were excited simply to be a part of that moment in history.
As I write this on Sept 15th, Pope Francis will be arriving in the United States in less than a week. That same excitement fills the air of our nations’ capital. That same excitement fills my heart as much as it did over seven years ago. Why is it that we should be excited for his arrival? In the age of computers, smartphones, and the 24/7 news media cycle, everyone can be a witness to Pope Francis and his message all the time. The excitement that I feel about his visiting the United States comes from a sense of honor and pride. Of all the countries in which Catholics live (and there are many), the choice of the Pontiff to visit our country brings a sense of pride to be a member of the nation that is experiencing history. As a note, this is not only Pope Francis’ first visit as pontiff to our country, it is also his first time ever visiting our country.
When Pope Francis arrives at Joint Base Andrews, United States Catholics around the country will watch, participate, and attend the events that Pope Francis will be a part of in Washington, D.C., New York City, NY, and Philadelphia, PA. Throughout six days, Catholics around the country have the opportunity to join in welcoming Pope Francis to our country. Whether through attending, participating, watching, or praying, all US Catholics can join in a celebration of the Pope’s visit and (hopefully) pride in understanding the momentous occasion of the event. It will hopefully renew that most perfect love, the love between God and man. In many ways, this visit from September 22-27 will be a great event and moment of potential evangelization.
What will we do on September 28? Will we simply go back to our lives as if this event never happened? This thought leads me back to my spring experience in 2008 because that is exactly what I did after Pope Benedict traveled back to Rome. As important and great as is the visit of a pope to your country, the words and actions of the pope during his visit are what should ultimately serve as a stepping off point in our evangelization journey. It doesn’t have to be something grandiose and over the top. Simple, sustainable acts of charity and prayer are enough to carry on the message of the Pope that was espoused when Francis was here. Fortunately for us, Pope Francis gave us a simple direction in his Apostolic Mission message: Love. Love is our primary mission as Catholics in the United States, and while this can be difficult to do, it is an important mission to carry forth when we watch Pope Francis leave from Philadelphia.
Next Tuesday at approximately 4:00 pm, Pope Francis will touch down at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County, Maryland. This Apostolic Journey to the United States of America includes visits to three important American cities: Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia.
I am excited to return next week to the campus of my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, where Pope Francis will celebrate the Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This Mass will make history, as it is the first canonization Mass to take place on U.S. soil and the first papal Mass to take place on a U.S. university campus.
As a seminarian, I will join thousands of my brother seminarians and those in religious formation in the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine for the Mass of Canonization. Although details are sparse, it is expected that Pope Francis will be greeted on the front steps of the National Shrine and then proceed down the center aisle before celebrating Mass on the steps of the National Shrine overlooking Catholic University.
The Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis has been described as an "encounter," not simply a trip. The secular media has focused on his address to Congress, the security concerns related to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and the associated merchandise. (I must admit that I'll be on the lookout for some fun Papal Visit trinkets as souvenirs!) I think there is something to be said, however, about this apostolic journey as an "encounter."
During an audience with seminarians and novices in July 2013, Pope Francis addressed them with these words, which are certainly applicable to us all:
I would like to tell you: come out of yourselves to proclaim the Gospel, but to do this you must come out of yourselves to encounter Jesus. There are two ways out: one towards the encounter with Jesus, towards transcendence; the other towards others in order to proclaim Jesus. These two go hand in hand. If you only take one of them, that is no good!
Encountering the Holy Father is a way to both deepen our faith and evangelize. This has been actualized in the "Walk with Francis" movement, which encourages people to join the Holy Father in prayer and service. The Holy Father has encouraged us to join in prayer not only for his Apostolic Journey to the United States, but also that his message of peace, mercy, discipleship, and love might touch the hearts of both believers and non-believers alike.
The theme of the Apostolic Journey, "Love is Our Mission," seems to indicate what it is that the Holy Father wishes to convey to us during his first visit to the United States. His words on love and mercy are poignant:
May a powerful gust of holiness sweep through all the Americas... We ask the Risen Jesus, Lord of all ages, that the life of our American continent may be rooted ever more deeply in the Gospel it has received; that Christ may be ever more present in the lives of individuals, families, peoples and nations, for the greater glory of God. We pray, too, that this glory may be manifested in the culture of life, brotherhood, solidarity, peace and justice, with a preferential and concrete love for the poor, through the witness of Christians of various confessions and communities, together with believers of other religious traditions, and people of upright conscience and good will. Lord Jesus, we are merely your missionary disciples, your humble co-workers so that your Kingdom may come!
We look forward to welcoming you to the United States, Holy Father, and we join in walking with you in prayer and service that we might become witnesses to love and ministers of God's mercy. Pope Francis told the young people gathered at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro that "evangelizing means bearing personal witness to the love of God, it is overcoming our selfishness, it is serving by bending down to wash the feet of our brethren, as Jesus did." By serving others and witnessing to the love of God, may we be inspired to encounter the Lord in our sisters and brothers. May this encounter with Pope Francis in the United States inspire us all to answer the Holy Father's call to evangelize.
For more information on Pope Francis' Apostolic Journey to the United States, please visit our Papal Visit Portal.