By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
The pastoral visit of Pope Francis to the United States, after a few days in Cuba, dominated the news outlets for far more than the six days that he was on American soil. Preparation for the visit absorbed most of a full year. The impact will endure for years to come. Without a doubt his presence in our nation was captivating.
Pope Paul V1 was the first to come to our shores in October 1965 to speak to the United Nations at the time when the Vietnam War was escalating. His words are enshrined for posterity. “No more war, never again war. Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of people and of all mankind.” St. John Paul II made several pastoral visits to the United States one of which included a similar circuit that Pope Francis just completed.
He also toured the Southeast and the Deep South with his cherished visit to New Orleans in 1987. Many in our region fondly recall the experience. St. John Paul presided over The World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado in 1993 inspiring generations of the young and not so young. John Paul had launched the biannual tradition of World Youth Day in Rome in 1984 because of the his profound love for young people throughout his entire priesthood.
Now we have celebrated the Pope Francis moment, a time in history when the hearts of many within the Church and throughout the world are hungering and thirsting for greater justice and peace, solidarity and hope for the human family. I directly experienced this longing in Washington, D.C. last week at the prayer service at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and during the Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. These were smaller gatherings in comparison to New York and Philadelphia, but the Spirit of the Lord was no less present.
In this column I intend to reflect upon my personal experiences, and the gist of Pope Francis’ homilies in the Cathedral of Saint Matthews, and at the Canonization Mass. Whenever a Head of State lands upon foreign shores the security is sweeping. For all of the nearly 300-400 bishops in attendance, the movement from place to place was glacier-like, even with a police escort for our seven buses. At times we flew along the streets of Washington, and then we waited. But it was all worth the wait. As we sat in Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, quietly praying in anticipation, the first sound that alerted us to the Pope’s arrival was the security Chopper leading his convoy as a Head of State. In short order, the Cathedral doors opened and Pope Francis entered with a smile as big as Argentina. As he walked down the center aisle to enthusiastic applause, it hit me that his entire demeanor embodied the joy of the Gospel, the title of his Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Guadium. His love for the Lord oozes from his being, and his desire to celebrate this love with all whom he meets, is what endears him to the human spirit.
At the end of the prayer service at St. Matthew’s Pope Francis spoke specifically to the bishops in attendance surrounded by many Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington who packed the Cathedral. His message was one of encouragement, and he ardently spoke of the bishop’s ministry as one of unity, charity, and zeal in service of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the flock. We are to walk with our people, strengthen our priests, and welcome the stranger in our midst. His love for us was palpable throughout his passionate address.
Upon leaving St. Matthew’s Cathedral we paused at the St. John Paul II Center for lunch before heading to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra. This was a festive celebration with the faithful participating from all over the country. Many journeyed from the West Coast including representatives of the Native American lineage from the California Missions. As we processed in before the arrival of Pope Francis the congregation of 25,000 was basking in the sun and greeting us with heartfelt words and gestures. It was humbling to see their love for the Lord and for the Church.
More than 220 years ago, the California Indians evangelized by Father Junípero Serra declared him a saint. In this historic canonization in the nation’s capital, Pope Francis ratified that declaration, declaring him a saint for the veneration of the universal church. Adding to the historic nature of the event was that Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas, was declaring the first Hispanic saint for the United States in his first Mass in the U.S. Red Star, a representative of the Chumash of the Ventura Mission, told the Register that he and seven other California Indian chiefs were in attendance at the Mass and also had the opportunity to meet personally with Pope Francis. They appreciated the acknowledgement of their people and culture throughout the Mass.
The ritual of canonization occurred immediately after the opening greeting from Pope Francis. After the celebration of the Litany of the Saints Pope Francis declared “We declare and define Blessed Junípero Serra to be a saint, and we enroll him among the saints, decreeing that he is to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Although simple in its makeup the joyful congregation was caught up in the splendor of the moment. Pope Francis fittingly began his homily with the words of Saint Paul from his letter to the Philippians (4,4) “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Joy and thanksgiving resounded through the congregation. At the close of his homily Pope Francis referred to the words that were the motto for Saint Junipero Serra’s life. Siempre, adelante, siempre adelante. “He was the embodiment of ‘a church which goes forth,’ a church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God,” the pope said. This is the theme that Pope Francis has repeatedly addressed and it is the call to all of us to be missionary disciples.
The Pope went on to give major addresses to Congress, to delegates at the United Nations, and to a throng of the faithful at the closing mass to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. There were other important homilies and speeches that reveal the heart of this Servant of the Servants of God, and it is my goal to synthesize this font of wisdom for my next column. Meanwhile, may the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd and Eternal High Priest continue to grant us a season of refreshment through the witness, words, and joyful smile of Francis of Rome, the Successor of Peter, and the Vicar of Christ.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz