Chasing Francis: God Girl on the U.S. Papal Visit 2015

I spent the week of Pope Francis’ first apostolic visit (and first visit ever) to the United States following him around Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia for Sojourners. Best people watching week of all time.

Below are links to all of those stories, from newest to oldest. I also shot a lot of photos, which you can find interspersed above below as well.


Why We (Still) Love Pope Francis
Oct. 7, 2015, Sojourners

So, why do we love Pope Francis? What does it mean and why does it matter?

Last year in Rome, while reflecting on Francis’ nearly universal popularity inside and out of the church, one member of the Curia in Rome put it this way:

  • People came to St. Peter’s Square to see Pope John Paul II.
  • People came to St. Peter’s Square to hear Pope Benedict XVI.
  • People come to St. Peter’s Square to feel Pope Francis.

Why do people want to “feel” Francis?

Because he has thrown open his arms wide to all of us, without caveat or exception, and extended the unflinching, unfailing love of God. And because he has broken down the walls, real and imagined, that separate the hierarchy of power and privilege from the rest of the world.

Whether it’s choosing to ride in the backseat of an economy car instead of an armored limousine, wearing black work shoes (his only pair) rather than the finest red leather slippers, or referring to himself most often as our “brother” and equal than as a father speaking to his children, he comports himself as a humble pilgrim who asks us to pray for him.

Francis is selfless in the age of the selfie, and yet he appears to take great delight in obliging requests, particularly from young people, to take a selfie with him as he did outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem last month.

When he stopped the papal Fiat on the tarmac in Philadelphia to greet a 10-year-old boy in a wheelchair, the pontiff didn’t just give the lad a quick pat on the head. He practically dove into the boy’s space, enveloping him in an embrace, cradling his face with both hands, and kissing him on the cheek. It wasn’t just an “I see you” gesture. It was “I love you and I am with you” in 20-foot-high letters.

That, my friends, is how you preach the Gospel.


Breaking In: Pope Francis in a Philly Prison

Sept. 28, 2015, Sojourners

Last week in his historic address to Congress, while expounding on society’s “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” the pope expressed his concern for prison reform and clear support for the global abolition of the death penalty.

“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” Francis said.

“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

Pope Francis’ focus in both word and action on prisons and prisoners during his U.S. papal visit was a thematic lynchpin in his ongoing pastoral outreach to the marginalized, disenfranchised, and even demonized of society.

Inmates at the Philadelphia prison include some of the most violent offenders, including murderers and rapists. But Francis insisted that God’s grace covers all manner of sins for all of us.

“All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. All of us,” the pope said, repeating the word todos (“all of us”) in Spanish as he pointed to himself.



Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned
Sept. 25, 2015, Sojourners

Celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation (aka "confession") in an empty bar at New York City's Madison Square Garden before the papal mass, 9/25/15. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.
Celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation (aka “confession”) in an empty bar at New York City’s Madison Square Garden before the papal mass, 9/25/15. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

“Brace yourself, Father,” I said, taking a seat in a plastic chair facing my would-be confessor in Madison Square Garden’s dimly lit Madison Bar on Friday, a few hours before the start of the papal mass.

The bearded Franciscan priest in his dove gray vestments laughed and said, “No way. It’s all fine. Think of it as a big embrace of forgiveness from your heavenly father.”

OK. I tried to warn you.

“Let me see if I remember how this goes,” I began. “Bless me father for I have sinned; it’s been 35 years since my last confession.”

He tried not to look startled and almost pulled it off.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” he said, smiling kindly as he reached beneath his cassock to pull out a small paperback tract that, he explained, contained a list of questions that he could ask me that might make recounting all of my trespasses since the third grade a little less daunting.



In U.S., Pope’s Actions, As Usual, Tell a Richer Story
Sept. 24, 2015, Sojourners

Wednesday marked the first time we’ve heard this pope speak at length in English. It is at least his third language — his first two being Spanish and the Italian he spoke at home with his parents, who emigrated from Italy to to Argentina before he was born.

Language is a powerful medium and in his native tongue(s), Pope Francis is wonderfully articulate — poetic, even. As we listened to him speak at the White House, those of us who have followed him closely immediately noticed the uncharacteristic uneasiness with which he spoke. I couldn’t help but imagine how frustrating it must be for a man who so obviously loves language not to be able to express himself with his usual playfulness and nuance.

Some commentators have said they thought the pope looked uncomfortable, even angry as he listened to Obama’s address Wednesday on the south lawn of the White House. He sat nearly motionless with a rather dour expression. But I don’t think he was annoyed or uneasy. I think he was concentrating on understanding what the president was saying. It’s his “resting pope face,” if you will.

Reportedly, Pope Francis has spent many months boning up on his English in advance of his first visit to the United States. Learning a new language is never easy, and English can be especially challenging. Can you imagine tackling English’s implausible spelling and grammar in your late 70s?

You might pull a face, too.


First Impressions: Pope Francis Arrives in the United States
Sept. 22, 2015, Sojourners

As Pope Francis’ motorcade made its way from the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., late Tuesday afternoon, it made a hard left from scenic Rock Creek Parkway onto Massachusetts Avenue, wending its way northwestward at a fast clip along the manicured thoroughfare known as Embassy Row.

Riding in the passenger-side back seat of his tiny, black Fiat 500L, the 78-year-old pontiff leaned his body toward the open window, stuck his arm out, turned his smiling face toward the street, and waived at the modest clutches of pedestrians law enforcement had allowed to stand along the sidewalk to greet him as he whizzed by.

Along the way, Francis passed dozens of embassies representing nations from six of the world’s seven continents, a group of school kids with signs that read “Te Queremos Papa!,” and one lemonade stand where three boys from the neighborhood were selling cold drinks for $1.50 a cup.

(No, the pope didn’t stop the motorcade to buy a drink and a cookie. But he might have — he’s been known to make such unscheduled stops to visit with regular folks, the kind in whose company he seems far more comfortable than he does hobnobbing with heads of state or captains of industry. )

The pope rode past the South African embassy with its statue of Nelson Mandela, right arm raised in a fist of solidarity, out front — and then, almost directly across the street, the hulking statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill raising two fingers in a peace sign (or to hail a cab) at the southernmost end of the British Embassy’s sprawling grounds.

The Mandela and Churchill statues almost high-five each other across Massachusetts Avenue while the pope’s humble hatchback, surrounded by massive Secret Service SUVs and swarms of police motorcycles, passed beneath their outstretched arms.

I wonder if Francis noticed the statues, and thought of the men — so different from one another, but each remembered as a hero — and wondered what his own place in history might be.


Posted on: October 8, 2015

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