5 years later: Remembering Pope Francis’ visit to the United States
A visit to the White House would normally be the highlight of someone’s day. But Sept. 23, 2015, was not an ordinary Wednesday for Sister Constance Veit.
“He was only with us for about 20 minutes, but a lot happened in those 20 minutes,” Sister Constance said to describe Pope Francis’ visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Washington, D.C., home five years ago.
The Holy Father’s impromptu stop by the Little Sisters’ apostolate in the nation’s capital was one of the symbolic highlights of the pope’s September 2015 apostolic visit to the United States. The visit highlighted the pontiff’s solidarity with the Little Sisters, who were then in a legal battle with the federal government over its contraceptive mandate in employee health insurance plans.
Five years later, the Little Sisters — who have since been granted relief from that mandate — still talk about the pope’s visit, as do many of the clergy and lay faithful who saw the Holy Father in his appearances that September in Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia.
“It was a very special time,” Sister Constance told Our Sunday Visitor. “And to think we had this moment with him that was just for us. … Speaking for myself, it was just an affirmation of our vocation.”
Pope Francis, who had been in the Chair of St. Peter for a little over two years, visited the United States from Sept. 22-27, 2015. The apostolic trip consisted of many of the usual features of previous papal visitations: formal remarks at the White House, an address to the United Nations, a Mass at Madison Square Garden.
But consistent with the themes of his papacy, the Holy Father worked in additions to his schedule that highlighted his desire to be with the poor, marginalized and outcast. He visited an inner-city Catholic school in East Harlem that served a largely immigrant community. He celebrated Mass for inmates at a state prison and blessed a statue dedicated to Jewish-Catholic interfaith dialogue at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
“That visit is still a teaching moment for the university,” Jesuit Father Daniel R.J. Joyce, the executive director of mission programs at St. Joseph’s University, told Our Sunday Visitor.
Pope Francis also made history in that apostolic visit. On Sept. 24, 2015, he became the first pope to address a joint session of the United States Congress. In that speech, which was also watched live by a national audience and a crowd of thousands outside on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, Pope Francis spoke about the plight of migrants, climate change, capital punishment and the need to protect persecuted religious communities, including Christians.
“Pope Francis’ address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress was a spectacular tour de force with his call for unity,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, D.C., told Our Sunday Visitor.
Archbishop Gregory, who at the time was the archbishop of Atlanta, noted that Pope Francis in his speech cited the heroic contributions of four Americans to honor the country’s legacy of freedom and service: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
“Having the legislators from both parties engaged in listening to his complementary and yet thought-provoking words should inspire us to deepen our respect for our U.S. heritage of freedom and our witness to the highest principles upon which our nation was founded and still strives to achieve,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The day before that historic speech to Congress, Pope Francis spoke to a crowd of more than 11,000 people on the White House South Lawn, becoming the third pope to visit the White House after Pope John Paul II in 1979 — the first of seven U.S. visits — and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Later that morning, he met the U.S. bishops for midday prayer at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. That afternoon, he presided at the canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Sister Constance and about 40 other Little Sisters of the Poor had tickets to attend that Mass, but minutes after taking their seats near the front of the basilica, they learned that Pope Francis was going to be stopping by their Washington D.C. home. They immediately walked out of the basilica, which generated curiosity among some Mass-goers.
Sister Constance said Pope Francis entered the building through a backdoor, emerging in the sisters’ chapel. He approached the sisters, greeting each one by one. The sisters each had a chance to say a few words to the Holy Father, though most were speechless.
“Being the communications director, I was not speechless. I had rehearsed what I wanted to say,” said Sister Constance, who thanked Pope Francis for his interest in and words on behalf of the elderly.
“Previous popes have spoken beautifully about the elderly, but it’s almost like a special charism he has, to speak not just about the elderly but to speak about the bonds he would like to see between young and old,” Sister Constance said. “He was very close to his grandmother, so I think that’s where it originates. It’s a very unique aspect of his pontificate.”
The pope thanked the Little Sisters for their work on behalf of the elderly poor, and spoke about how important it was despite the often thankless and difficult nature of their apostolate. He spoke in Spanish with a centenarian sister from Colombia about Argentinian wine and Colombian coffee. With another older sister, who had dementia, the pope spent a few moments with her before giving her his blessing.
“This was someone who could not give him anything in return, yet he was so very attentive to her,” Sister Constance said.
New York City
After leaving Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, the pope arrived in New York City, where he spent about a day and a half. He attended a vespers service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, addressed the United Nations General Assembly and participated in a multi-religious service at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and World Trade Center before celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden.
Before the Mass, which followed a papal procession through Central Park, Pope Francis visited Our Lady Queen of Angels Elementary School in East Harlem, where a crowd of students had gathered and cheered as the pope exited his vehicle. Joanne Walsh, who was principal at the time at Our Lady Queen of Angels, told Our Sunday Visitor that she remembers the joy and pride in East Harlem that “El Papa” had chosen to visit their community.
“I remember the feeling of oneness, excitement and awe of everyone involved, from the students, teachers, staff, families, parishioners, former parishioners and students, neighbors, NYC police, mail carrier, Secret Service, donors, UPS driver, etc., who expressed that they felt that they were receiving a special blessing,” Walsh said.
Inside the school, Pope Francis greeted teachers, administrators and donors before walking into a classroom, where students displayed class projects on environmental themes in the spirit of Laudato Si’, the pope’s encyclical on integral ecology. Ngueubou Kamwa, who was then a fourth-grade student, remembers the pope “was very humble and kind” and that he touched her head at one point.
“I joked that I would never wash my head again,” Kamwa told Our Sunday Visitor.
Nicholas Maronero, a student who at the time was also in the fourth grade, told Our Sunday Visitor that he was struck by how “normal” or down to earth the pope seemed in person.
“Not many people can say they’ve met the pope,” Maronero said.
Jill Kafka, the executive director of Partnership Schools, a network of nine urban Catholic schools in New York City and Cleveland, also met Pope Francis that day at Our Lady Queen of Angels. She remembers most the energy and feeling of unity.
“I don’t remember a time that brought people together like that in a way that was so positive,” Kafka told Our Sunday Visitor. “People so admired him and what he stood for. You felt his warmth and his having chosen this community to pay a visit to. It was special.”
Pope Francis spent the last two days of his 2015 visit — Sept. 26 and 27 — in Philadelphia, where he celebrated Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, visited Indepence Mall and participated in the World Meeting of Families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
In addition to meeting with bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, the pope visited Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, a prison in Philadelphia. There, the pope spoke directly to inmates, assuring them of his prayers and urging them to “make possible new opportunities, new journeys, new paths.”
“That was really powerful, for the people to meet those folks who were forgotten,” said Father Joyce of St. Joseph’s University, who added that the pope’s emphasis on a culture of encounter and interfaith dialogue captivated many young people on campus.
“I think he really captured the hearts and minds of our students and a whole lot of young people in that year,” Father Joyce said.
Father Dennis Gill, the rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, said the City of Brotherly Love was “alive” with verve and energy during the papal visit. He was particularly impressed with the integrity and apostolic zeal of Catholics who came from all over the world to participate in the World Meeting of Families that September.
Said Father Gill, “It was a great moment for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.