In the Philadelphia area, where I live, there was great excitement for months before Pope Francis came to visit in late September. Not only faithful Catholics, but people of many faiths or no faith have been touched by a man who makes the compassion of Christ real. Before coming to Philadelphia, the pope spoke to Congress and the United Nations and was hosted by the Obamas in the White House. He came to Philadelphia for the World Conference on Families, but he also had lunch in a prison, spoke to immigrants about their value to their new nation, and met with victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Several times he kissed and blessed disabled people and children he saw along his route in Philadelphia. Hundreds of thousands of people converged in the center of the city to catch sight of him coming down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in his popemobile and heard him say Mass on the steps of the Art Museum, known from the movie, “Rocky.”
Before the pope’s visit, I felt a desire to go into the city to catch a glimpse of him speaking at Independence Mall or saying Mass. The streets into the center of the city were closed off for the event, however, and those who wanted to attend needed to take a train into the city, pass through a security check, and then, walk long distances. My desire faded as I contemplated the effort and the difficulties I would face. On the eve of his visit, I found myself at the home of a family living in Lower Merion Township, just outside the city. They had been invited to a “Pope Party” the next day. Punch and pizza would be served on the porch, with pontification. People were invited to bring pasta, or other food beginning with a “p.” When a family member mentioned that we were only blocks from the seminary where the pope would be staying overnight, I was moved to take a walk in that direction, not knowing if he had already arrived or not. As I approached the walled grounds of the campus, “No Parking” signs were posted along the streets. I knew I was not likely to see the pope, but my solitary walk gave me time to reflect and pray about his visit.
I was raised as a Catholic, and I still attend Mass when I visit my mother. I am deeply moved when I am among devout Catholics, and I admire the faith of some feisty, radical nuns and priests I have met. However, I have long felt clear that the Roman Catholic church is mistaken in many matters, including the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Like early Quakers, when I attend Mass, I see how church hierarchy often makes it more difficult for people to experience the divine presence and teaching within themselves. Nonetheless, I am moved by a religious leader who proclaims that “mercy is more important than morality,” who visits prisoners, the poor, and the homeless, who acknowledges that God’s forgiveness extends even to atheists, and who has made plans for the Roman Catholic Church to offer forgiveness more widely. Throughout his religious career, Pope Francis has made it a point to spend time with those who are marginalized by society, offering fellowship and extending blessing to society’s outcasts, just as Jesus did. I am glad, also, that his recent Encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí, has held up the urgent importance of addressing climate change and asked developed nations to take responsibility for our excessive carbon emissions and our abuse of Mother Earth. I applauded when I heard that he spoke plainly to Congress about stopping the arms trade.
On the eve of his visit to Philadelphia, in the streets of Lower Merion Township, near where Pope Francis would soon be eating and sleeping for a night, I stopped to say a prayer. It was a prayer of gratitude that this pope was making God’s love, forgiveness, and presence more tangible for people. As I prayed, I realized that in praying for his visit, I was in some measure joining with him in his desire to make God’s mercy and healing more available across the earth.
The next evening I attended a reunion of members of a Quaker Meeting which had been my beloved church community for six years. As we shared a pot luck meal, we talked about that day’s news coverage of the pope’s visit. When it was time for dessert, with a look of mischief, our hostess, another former Catholic, said she had a surprise. Then she brought in a tray of large round cookies, each decorated in colored frosting with a photo of Pope Francis, his hand extended in blessing. We laughed, and then ate the pope. Perhaps it was a kind of communion, another way of bringing into ourselves the qualities of mercy, compassion, community, and responsibility that the pope is urging everyone to embrace. One woman who had been watching TV footage of his visit said that Francis had been asking people to pray for him.
“Let’s take some time now to pray for the pope,” she suggested.
And so, in silence, we did. Afterwards, we shared our experiences. Some felt lifted up by the prayer. Others felt sobered by a sense of the responsibility that the pope carries. Others politely smiled and kept their thoughts and experiences quiet.
Praying for the Pope: Did the pope’s recent visits to Cuba and the U.S. have any effect on you?
© 2015 Marcelle Martin