It was a great privilege and joy for me to be in Washington, DC, with Pope Francis for his visit and talk with the bishops of the United States as well as for the Mass which he celebrated at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the canonization of Junipero Serra. It was a beautiful day of sunshine and very comfortable weather only surpassed by the sunshine and comfortable presence which the Pope exuded. He truly is a remarkable man of tremendous energy for his age as well as a spirit of deep faith which expresses itself in his joy and compassion. It was obvious that he touched all the thousands of people who came out to greet him and get a glimpse of him.
Pope Francis' words to the bishops were extremely supportive and encouraging. He expressed gratitude for "the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family" which the Pope expressed as his primary reason for his visit. He thanked the bishops for their "immense efforts ... to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America ... in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity." Pope Francis also expressed his appreciation for the bishops’ efforts made "to fulfill the Church's mission of education in schools at every level and in the charitable services offered" by their numerous institutions. He acknowledged the courage with which the bishops "have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice." In this context, the Pope expressed his support for the bishops’ commitment "to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed."
Pope Francis told the bishops that it was not his intention "to offer a plan or to devise a strategy" for them but “in the freedom of love, to speak to you as a brother among brothers.” He stressed the role of the bishop as a shepherd of the Church appointed by God to feed his flock. The bishop must be a pastor with an undivided heart and selfless devotion. The Pope expressed how the bishop needs to preserve the joy of Christ and not to let himself be robbed of it. The heart of the identity of the bishop is to be sought in constant prayer, in preaching and in shepherding the flock entrusted to his care. He especially stressed that the bishop must be in familiar union with Christ and must daily encounter His gaze. Only then will the bishop know the joy of the Gospel, which includes the Cross, and be able to share it with those entrusted to his care. Pope Francis emphasized that "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).
Listening to the Pope as he spoke to the bishops was like hearing a retreat master during a time of prayer and reflection. His words were most moving because he lives the words which he spoke. He expressed so intimately, "Know that the Pope is at your side. The Pope supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God's grace, still able to support and encourage." His words made evident that it is God who accomplishes His mission despite the limitations and failures of all of us. It is only in recognizing the merciful grace of our loving God that we are enabled to move forward through His power and to support each other in our need. God loves us, not because of our accomplishments and good works, and He never turns from us even in our sins and failures. As Jesus so lovingly tells us, "It is not you who have chosen me but I who have chosen you" (Jn 15:16). The Pope almost mystically expressed one of his deepest convictions: "We fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us. ... Woe to us, however, if we make the Cross a banner of worldly struggles and fail to realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed” (Phil 2:1-11).
As I reflect upon my own experience with Pope Francis’ visit in Washington as well as watching closely his visit to New York and Philadelphia, I cannot help but be moved, with so many others, by his presence among us. As I watched the crowds greet him and heard so many positive words about him, it is obvious that he is a man very close to God and doing all he can to carry out the mission of the Vicar of Christ which has been entrusted to him. We truly are blessed by our Holy Father and by his loving wisdom and his guidance in living our faith. However, I also cannot help but to think of the many other Papal visits to our country of which I have been privileged to be part. I was blessed, as a young high school student, to be part of the first Papal visit to the United States by Pope Paul VI on October 4, 1965. I was able to be present at the Mass celebrated at Yankee Stadium as well as to see him pass by in his motorcade on the street. As a young priest, I was privileged to participate at the first visit of Saint Pope John Paul II to the United States in October of 1979. As a bishop I have been extremely privileged to participate very closely in the Papal visits to our country especially as the Pope addressed the bishops personally. In this manner I have been at the visits of Saint Pope John Paul II as well as that of Pope Benedict XVI. The same sense of awe was present at all of these visits by the hundreds of thousands who came as well as by the media which covered the events. What I experienced recently, I have experienced before. The Popes of our age have been extraordinary men with different personalities and abilities but all with a great faith and willingness to give of themselves to preach the Gospel. They have deeply touched those who have encountered them.
What impels us to be touched by a Papal visit is the office which the Pope possesses. He is the Vicar of Christ on this earth and the Successor of St. Peter whom Jesus freely chose to be the first universal Shepherd of the Church. In a very real way, the papacy transcends time and brings us to the Person of Jesus Himself. It is in the Pope that the unity of the Church is guaranteed and it is through him, in union with all of the Church, that Christ’s teaching is handed on to us. All the Popes whom I have met have been men of great faith, courage, energy, humility and compassion. They have lived, as does Pope Francis, the office with which they are entrusted.
A great deal has been reported about the recent Papal visit. This is a wonderful thing and a service of the media so moved by his person and words. It is important to realize that the Pope speaks the words of Christ in our day and age to a world that needs to hear them more than anything else. He neither spoke for a political party nor for promoting a particular political agenda. We have to be careful in reading the reports of what the Pope said as, understandably, they are used to promote particular political agendas and positions. Sometimes, this can be unfair to what the Pope actually said and intended to impart not as his opinion but the truth of Jesus Christ. I would highly recommend that his words be read firsthand as they are so easily available through the Internet. Then we can enter into true dialogue with him as he so much wishes.
I was personally moved by the Pope’s visit and also remembered many other visits which evoked the same feelings within me. Perhaps the words of Pope Francis to the Bishops in Washington sum up what any Pope’s visit is all about: "The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God's love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the Cross embraces the whole of mankind. May no member of Christ's Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace. Wherever the name of Jesus is spoken, may the Pope’s voice be heard to affirm that: "He is the Savior"!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 9, 2015