by Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pope Francis’ U.S. visit — Sept. 22-27 — was so full, “each day was like a week,” said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Any one of his public events would have made the trip worthwhile, said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, but he noted that what will stand out the most from the visit were the pope’s “personal opportunities to be with people that are not the influential, but the forgotten.”
The archbishop, in a Nov. 18 interview during the bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, said the pope brought Catholics together with a “sense of fervor and enthusiasm” that will continue to benefit both the U.S. church and the pope, who was “encouraged by his interaction with us.”
Pope Francis talked about how much he enjoyed the U.S. visit right away: during his Sept. 27 return flight to Rome after six jam-packed days in Washington, New York and Philadelphia on the heels of his four-day visit to Cuba. He told reporters he “was surprised by the warmth of the people” in the U.S. and how they were “so loving.”
There was certainly plenty of love on display for the pope in crowds that lined streets in Washington, New York and Philadelphia just to catch a glimpse of him. And he returned the love right back, waving from the popemobile or the black Fiat and personally greeting bishops, schoolchildren, prisoners, the homeless and abuse victims or in celebrating liturgies and addressing massive crowds or congressional leaders and U.N. officials.
It was his first visit to the United States and he introduced himself as a brother, a son of immigrants and a neighbor not far from our southern border. He reminded the country’s leaders of the nation’s founding principles and he urged them to protect families and the earth from an uncertain future.
During the whirlwind visit all attention was on the pontiff who had guarded with extremely tight security. His trip was covered by 8,000 credentialed reporters and also described in detail by tens of thousands through social media. According to the USCCB Communications Department, there were 5.1 billion impressions about the pope’s visit on Twitter with the hashtags #PopeinUS and #PapaEnUSA.
Other numbers which stand out from the visit include the crowd sizes at major events:
— 1 million people attended the closing Mass in Philadelphia, Sept. 27.
— 80,000 tickets distributed to see the pope in New York’s Central Park, Sept. 25.
— 50,000 were on U.S. Capitol grounds to see the pope, Sept. 24.
— 25,000 people attended the canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra at the Basilica of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Sept. 23.
The theme of the visit was “Love is Our Mission” and in each U.S. stop the pope stressed the importance of reinvigorating one’s faith, serving others and living up to the founding ideals of the United States.
Pope Francis was welcomed to the White House and became the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress. He joined leaders of other religions in honoring the dead and comforting their surviving family members at ground zero in New York. He addressed the United Nations. And, in Philadelphia, using a lectern once used by Abraham Lincoln, he called for respect for religious freedom and ethnic and cultural differences.
He ended his visit by urging Catholics to continue their enthusiasm in the faith, welcoming newcomers and caring for creation.
“Do not let your enthusiasm for Jesus, his church, our families, and the broader family of society run dry,” Pope Francis said at the Philadelphia International Airport before flying back to Rome.
The pope always stressed that the purpose of his visit was to attend the World Meeting of Families, which took place in Philadelphia on the closing days of his U.S. visit. While there, he emphasized, in prepared text and unscripted remarks, the importance and grace-filled moments of family life.
The crowds, gathered at every turn of the pope’s visit and willing to wait for hours to get through security lines, reflected the pontiff’s rock-star appeal but they also indicated something else, said Jonathan Lewis, director of young adult ministry and evangelization for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Lewis, who volunteered along the parade route near the White House Sept. 23, said the pope’s appeal is also because “he points us to Christ.”
“This is a kickoff moment,” Lewis told Catholic News Service as the crowds around him vied for optimum viewing spots. “It’s easy to cheer for Francis; it takes more courage to walk with Francis.”
And after people put away their yellow and white Vatican flags or their pope buttons and T shirts, they had the chance to put this zeal for the pope and what he stands for into action.
According to a poll released Dec. 15 by the St. Leo University Polling Institute in St. Leo, Florida, 61 percent of Americans were motivated to donate the same amount or more to charities this year and 14.9 percent attributed this to the pope’s visit.
The survey of more than 1,000 people online from Nov. 29-Dec. 3, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, showed that Catholics intended to increase their giving this year by 24.3 percent to environmental groups, places of worship, charities, refugee causes, pro-life organizations and human rights groups this year.
“People feel compelled to do something,” said Nancy Wood, St. Leo University, assistant professor of Human Services, “whether that is donating money or donating time and volunteering.”
She also said the pope’s message resonated with non-Catholics because it “translates into helping others.”
Since the pope’s visit, pastors in the Washington Archdiocese have said they have seen more outreach to the most vulnerable, said Susan Timoney, secretary of pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.
In a Dec. 15 email to Catholic News Service, she said priests in the archdiocese also have noted that they have heard many people say during the sacrament of reconciliation that they were inspired by the pope’s visit to “come back to church or begin to work on some of their spiritual concerns.”
Returning to the sacraments and helping the poor reflects what Timoney said is the most significant impact of the pope’s visit: “people’s desire to continue the conversation Pope Francis started.”