Pope Francis, the 266th and current pope of the Catholic Church, arrived in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, for the first visit of his papacy. Federal authorities, recognizing the security challenges of the visit, deployed a monumental and successful security operation, after deeming the papal visit a “national security special event” according to Secret Service standards. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, including young children and even newborns, were present in the streets for a glimpse of the Catholic Church leader. The Pope is known for engaging with crowds, shaking hands and even reaching out of his car window to kiss babies.
His popularity stems not only from his engagement but also from his teachings. Darius Villalobos, the director of the Young Adult Ministry Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago, explained that the pope “brings light to issues that we do not have at the forefront of our minds in the U.S. and that Catholics in other parts of the world are struggling with.” His itinerary for his visit demonstrated these priorities. Instead of spending long hours in conferences with government officials, he spent most of his time meeting with refugees, the homeless, underprivileged schoolchildren, prisoners and day laborers. John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, observed, “We think that we are the center of the world here in Washington. We aren’t the center of Pope Francis’s world.” The pope emphasizes the importance of individuals over the trappings of authority.
Arriving in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, the pope continued to emphasize individuals when 100 inmates and their families welcomed him to Philadelphia’s largest prison. Painting criminal justice reform as an exclusively moral issue, Francis called life sentences a “hidden death penalty” and decried solitary confinement as inhumane. The pope told the inmates that this time in their life “can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society.” The inmates were so moved by his visit that they built a six-foot walnut throne to thank him.
To many observers, the pope’s delivery of Sunday mass was the most memorable event of his visit. After meeting privately with victims of sexual abuse, Francis delivered mass in Spanish to an audience of an estimated one million people. The inclusion of thousands of immigrants in the audience highlighted the great strides the pope has made towards solidarity by calling on Europe to welcome refugees. “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family,” said Francis. This call to action is indicative of the pope’s humble and inclusive message, endearing him to many of the faithful.
The Catholic church seems to be divided on the pope’s visit. Only 59 percent of traditional Catholics currently favor Francis despite 76 percent that favored him last year. While many were excited to meet the pope, others were cautious due to Francis’ comparatively loose teachings on morality — he famously told a prominent Italian atheist that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and, when asked about gay priests, responded “who am I to judge?” Francis has been accused of disappearing on issues such as abortion and contraception, saying he avoids those issues because the church has become too “obsessed” with them.
Regarding the pope’s politics, Villalobos believes that he “is not worried about being political but is focused on speaking the truths of what we believe as a church and followers of Jesus Christ.” According to Villalobos, the church’s teachings “are not aligned with one political party or ideology” even though it can seem like the pope is “making statements on politics when he is making statements as a faith leader and moral authority.” Anna Krcek, a junior and Catholic, notes said that “the pope is not going to be infallible in all situation because he’s a human.” She nonetheless insisted that the pope is teaching Christians to practice their faith through peaceful, unifying attitudes seeking to bring reconciliation.
For Wheaton College and the faith community at large, Pope Francis’ visit brought significant implications. Rev. C. Frank Phillips, pastor of St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago, told The Record that he saw the visit as a reminder to “be faithful” both “in season and out of season.” Similarly, Villalobos hopes the visit “can be a unifying experience for the church” by reminding us that we “have much more in common” and can “share and work together as followers of Jesus Christ.” He added that “being people of faith is still needed and life-giving.” The pope’s visit was a potent and timely reminder of the relevance of faith in modern life.