The Lasting Presence of Francis

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Pope Francis on Constitution Avenue Sept. 23. | Photo by Robert Devaney

By the time this issue of The Georgetowner went to press, Pope Francis had come to town. His Holiness was safely ensconced, presumably getting ready for bed, at the Apostolic Nunciate, the Vatican’s diplomatic presence in Washington on Massachusetts Avenue.

We were in the midst of an unprecedented — for Pope Francis — event in this city, where unprecedented events are practically a daily occurrence. We have recently seen visits by the heads of state of Saudi Arabia and Spain. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be toasted at a White House State Dinner on Friday.

You may recall that the prime minister of Israel was here earlier this year to try and change minds about the nuclear treaty with Iran. This town is a city where large personas, big symbols and bigger egos are fellow travelers.

It is also a city that has a strong Catholic presence and history. Two of the most visible universities are Catholic University and Georgetown University. Then there are the two major Catholic churches: the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where the pope is to speak to a gathering of U.S. bishops, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he will officiate at a Mass canonizing 18th-century missionary Junípero Serra (both on Wednesday).

Americans moved and encouraged by the often startling activities and pronouncements and encyclicals of this pope are in a kind of swoon and ecstasy over his U.S. visit (New York and Philadelphia are also on the itinerary). No head of state, no rock or movie star, no politician can command this kind of attention, probably not even the previous popes who visited America: Pope Paul VI in 1965, followed by the popular and durable Pope John Paul II on several occasions and by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.

This is a visit with all the trimmings that the Roman Catholic Church in Washington and the Vatican can muster. This isn’t a simple stop-over, a wave from a helicopter; this is “thousands upon thousands descending on Washington” — gathering at the White House for the pope’s chat with President Barack Obama, for a pope parade near the National Mall, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and at the Mass in front of the Shrine.

Pope Francis is decidedly a people’s pope, with an intellectually questing Jesuit spirit and what appears to be a broad tendency toward forgiveness, compassion, tolerance and empathy for most everybody on the planet. It is not that he is revolutionizing the church by deed, but rather changing the world by attitude and appearance. He’s already spoken out on climate change, greed and war, and adopted a forgiving attitude on divorced Catholics.

When asked about gays — and, by inference, gay marriage — he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” (although one might follow that up with, “If not him, who?”). The pope is visiting a country whose general citizenry includes people who are quite willing to judge, thank you.

At 78, with not all the time in the world for patience or the big picture, he’s engaged the world as it is — on earth if not in heaven.

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