The first thing the new Pope Francis said to the world in St. Peter’s Square when he accepted the papacy was “I am a sinner.” In a final mass of one million people in Philadelphia, the last words Francis spoke to the American people were, “Please pray for me; don’t forget!”
From the moment Francis arrived to the last event he led in the U.S., I saw something I never had before. For the first time in my life, I saw the gospel proclaimed at the highest levels of the nation — from the White House, to the Congress, to the United Nations, to Madison Square Garden, to Independence Hall, and to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Simplicity, humility, compassion, grace, service, love, justice, peace, care for the poor, and creation itself were all lifted up in the places where such things are seldom valued or even named.
The solutions to many of our problems that are often suggested in places like grassroots community organizations, social service centers, faith-based organizations, conflict resolution projects, and the pages of our own Sojourners magazine and website were being lifted up in the places of power. Again, I could hardly believe that the best ideas Sojo.net puts forward were being advanced at Congress and in the UN and on every television network in America.
In between all those high-power venues, the gospel was lived by the pope as he engaged with people in the places where the powerful and the cameras never go. But the cameras came with Francis when he had lunch with the homeless at Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., to a room full of beaming school children in Harlem where a little girl showed the grinning pope how to “double click” and operate a touch screen television, to a prison in Philadelphia where weeping prisoners were able to hug a pope who had told them about their worth as people made in the image of God.
Then there were all the moments when Francis instinctively reached out to disabled persons, to children such as a little girl who slipped through security and introduced the pope to her undocumented father, to spending time with Catholic religious women whom the pope thinks are leading the church into the gospel in the streets, schools, and into our communities. While Francis was unbelievably eloquent in the top public settings of America, he was clearly more comfortable and happy in the places at the bottom of society — where the gospel is always more at home, as he was.
And I have to honestly say that the gospel was proclaimed last week by Pope Francis much more clearly than it usually is in most U.S. churches, including his own Catholic church, the evangelical church I grew up in, and in most of the congregations Americans attend each week. The gospel we heard last week was clearly one that could and should transform a culture, rather than the services and sermons we hear week after week that are so conformed to the culture.
Francis continues to speak out about our “consumer” and “throw-away culture,” where attractions to the endless offerings of the marketplace are often stronger than the message of our service to one another and those on the margins; where families get eaten up by market values instead of being the most personal environment where the love of God is most practically experienced.
The continual and consistent theme of Pope Francis’ gospel message, every day and at the core of each event and moment — both public and private — was about who is most important, who Jesus calls us to value, to encounter, to love, and to never forget. The people on the bottom of American society were lifted up last week, and the people at the top had to hear about those at the bottom over and over again.
Never has the media been so focused on the marginalized because Francis was always talking about them and wanting to be with them. Francis took the cameras of America to the poor and vulnerable. He took politics and even politicians there, too, with his focus on the hungry, the homeless, the immigrants, and the prisoners. And Francis took the church there, too, and told us that the church belongs there all the time — with the ones whom Jesus tells us to lift up.
On a personal level, I haven’t felt this moved in a very long time. I was inspired by being around Francis at one of his events, watching every speech he gave during the week on television, and then seeing as much of his pilgrimage through America as I could — marveling at the spontaneous interactions he had along the way.
Pope Francis proclaimed the gospel to me again and again, all in ways that were confronting, humbling, and renewing. Hearing the gospel preached every day with such eloquence and power — while seeing it lived with such authenticity and integrity — showed me how far I fall short of the things I most dearly and deeply believe.
It often drew me to the prayer: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The greatest blessing of the week was how mercy was at the core of Pope Francis’ message to America. Mercy and the grace of God was the homily last week, more than the political soundbites too many of the media pundits were looking for. Millions of us walked forward, in person or in spirit, to receive the bread and the wine from Pope Francis and said, “Thanks be to God.”