On What a Catholic Should Look Like: Reflections from the Pope’s Visit to the U.S.

September 29, 2015

Catholicism in my experience has always been about the ritual. The sacraments. Heading to mass every day. This past Sunday the pastor at my church give a new explanation of what being a Catholic should look like. In two words: Pope Francis.

Over the course of his 6 day visit to the United States, Pope Francis made many official stops. He also made several unofficial stops. He stopped his motorcade to bless a disabled boy and kiss a couple of babies. He declined lunch with Congress to break bread with the homeless. He met with a family who travelled 13,000 miles from his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina to see him in Philadelphia. It was in these unofficial meetings that my pastor said we can see what true Catholicism is.

Arch. Barreto signing petition at Follow Francis Rally 9.24.15

Archbishop Barreto of Peru signing the Catholic Climate petition at the Follow Francis Rally in Washington DC.

In the Profession of Faith, Catholics recite the Nicene Creed. Within this creed are four words, describing the church: one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. These four words were explained to me like this. One: Each of us is in union with one another; holy: In addition, we are also one with God; Catholic: The word means ‘universal’, so we are a faith community that, despite differences in language, culture or tradition, is the same worldwide; Apostolic: We are the Apostles of our generation. Jesus said in the Gospel, “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.” (Mk 9:39) So to be Apostolic, we must do as Jesus taught and go out to serve others.

Pope Francis spent just over 5 days here in the US. In that time, he visited three cities, had 5 meetings at ceremonies where he addressed an audience in an official capacity, held prayers or Mass 6 times, and made nine appearances to the general public, either in a parade, prison or other ‘social visit’ capacity. You can see in his demeanor that these nine times, when he was meeting with the people, when he was (in his own words) “smelling of the sheep”, these times were when he was most at ease. These times with his people were when he looked happiest. This is what a pastor does. This is what the head of the church is demonstrating to the rest of the people. How to be a Catholic.

Volunteer Heidi Scheffler gathering signatures among Papal pilgrims 9.24.15

Volunteer Heidi Scheffler gathering signatures among Papal pilgrims in Washington, DC.

We can summarize these actions by reading the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25 verses 35-40: 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[a] you did it to me.’

Since the Pope’s visit was announced, many different faith and climate advocacy organizations began working on ways to celebrate his presence. The two organizations I work with, The Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Franciscan Action Network, collaborated on several successful events. The first began before the Pope even arrived.

Lifestyle change and spiritual conversion are necessary in addition to structural reforms for the Climate Crisis to be averted. Fasting has always been a way for individuals to make a statement, to stand in solidarity with others, and deepen one’s prayer or spiritual life. With this in mind, we organized a 10-day fast coordinated with a global fast already underway through the #FastForTheClimate campaign. It began on September 14th and involved a water-only fast as well as a fast from gratuitous carbon emitting activities. For the entire time they were there, the people fasting sat at a table and wore t-shirts asking “Have you signed the Catholic Climate Pledge?” They collected signatures on the petition from visitors and other people who wandered by asking what they were doing.

Patrick taking the stage at Follow Francis rally 9.24.15

Patrick Carolan of FAN taking the stage at the Follow Francis rally in Washington DC.

The Fast culminated in a wonderful vigil the night before Pope Francis was to address Congress. It was September 23rd, which was one of the holiest days in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. We began our vigil in the Jewish tradition, with the blowing of a Shofar (traditional Jewish horn) and a ceremonial breaking of the fast. Into the night, there were various different faith traditions that joined and offered prayers and sentiments specific to each of their traditions. Once evening settled in, folks kept a silent vigil in prayer for open hearts and minds the next day, as Congress prepared to hear the Holy Father.

Another spectacular event occurred just before the address to the joint session of Congress began. It was a free, unticketed rally for the people on the National Mall where giant screens were set up to broadcast the Pope’s speech. There were representatives from all the different organizations there to give messages of hope and solidarity along with a diverse collection of  musical guests, from gospel choirs to country artists. Many signatures for the petition were collected from the crowd by numerous volunteers and advocates.

FAN board member Fr. Jacek Orzechowski at the Follow Francis Rally 9.24.15

FAN board member Fr. Jacek Orzechowski at the Follow Francis Rally

All of these events and more inspire me to follow the lead of those I admire, Pope Francis, my pastor, Fr. Tom Lynch, and a multitude of friends and co-workers who have such deep personal faith. I will do my part to “smell of the sheep’, to reach out of my comfort zone and meet people where they are, to hear their stories and walk with them for a while, together in companionship on this journey.


Janine Walsh
Communications Coordinator, Franciscan Action Network
Communications Associate, GCCM