One year ago today – on Sept. 22, 2015 – Pope Francis’s plane touched down at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, D.C. There to greet him on the tarmac were President Barack Obama and the First Lady and other government leaders, along with Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl and a receiving line of Catholic bishops. Four Catholic students handed flowers to the smiling pontiff.
Pope Francis’s whirlwind visit to the nation’s capital over the next two days would include the first-ever papal address to Congress, a visit with the homeless served by Catholic Charities, and the first Canonization Mass on U.S. soil, for St. Junípero Serra, the famous 18th century Franciscan missionary of California.
But one of the most enduring images of the papal visit in Washington and on the subsequent stops in New York and in Philadelphia involved the little black Fiat that Pope Francis stepped into at the Maryland airfield, the same model that was his mode of transportation in the Big Apple and the City of Brotherly Love.
That car’s size elicited smiles from the crowd gathered at the airport, and later from the cheering groups of Catholic school students who greeted the pope like a rock star at his comings and goings at the Apostolic Nunciature, the residence of the pope’s representative to the United States, where he stayed during his Washington visit.
And that car seemed to reflect the humility and joy of the man in white who sat in its back seat on his first papal journey to the United States.
Wuerl, the pope’s host in Washington, later described what it was like being a passenger in the papal Fiat.
“The pope liked to ride with his window rolled down. He controlled the window. He kept asking the driver to get him closer to the crowds,” which made his security detail nervous, the cardinal said in a talk last fall to the John Carroll Society.
“I think it was a symbol to us – ‘lower the window.’ If you are going to reach people, invite people, touch people, ‘lower the window.’”
In the year since Pope Francis visited and then departed from Washington, the black Fiat has become a symbol of the pope who emphasizes bringing Christ’s love to the poor and forgotten.
The archdiocese has a social media campaign, #DriveWithFrancis, that promotes the papal Fiat’s appearances throughout the Washington area, to highlight the local Church’s charitable outreach and service in the community.
After throwing out the first pitch at a recent Washington Nationals game, Wuerl joined volunteers near the park’s entrance, as they packed 550 breakfast bags for the homeless, which were loaded into the Fiat and delivered to a Catholic Charities shelter.
Baseball fans posed for photos beside the car, which in recent months has also been filled with baby items for a crisis pregnancy center in Capitol Hill, and with canned goods for a community food bank in Southern Maryland.
This past year, Wuerl, like the people in his archdiocese, has basked in the afterglow of the papal visit, and has reflected on its unforgettable moments. He also had the vantage point of riding with Pope Francis in the popemobile during a parade near the White House, and later just before the canonization Mass, which was held outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
That outdoor Mass’s congregation of 25,000 people included many students from The Catholic University of America, whose campus adjoins the basilica. The popemobile drove through the CUA grounds, and then Pope Francis surprised the driver by ordering him to turn around and swing back past the cheering crowd of students one more time.
Wuerl said that gave Pope Francis an inspiring look at the faces of the future of the Church in the United States, which the pope also viewed moments later inside the basilica, where he was greeted by several thousand seminarians and novices.
Concluding his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope Francis encouraged today’s Catholics to emulate St. Junípero Serra’s motto, siempre adelante – “Keep moving forward!”
In an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, Wuerl said that spirit was at the heart of the Walk with Francis pledge drive organized by the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities to mark the papal visit.
Just before Pope Francis’s plane touched down at Joint Base Andrews, Catholic Charities announced that more than 100,000 people had pledged to pray, serve or act to improve their community.
The participants in that effort included a boy who donated his birthday money to the Maryland Food Bank, and a young adult group that bagged and delivered potatoes to soup kitchens in Washington. Local celebrities pitching in included Olympic gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky, who pledged to support Catholic Charities, the Shepherd’s Table soup kitchen, and a charity that provides bicycles to Third World countries.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the papal visit, Catholic Charities invited Catholics at parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Washington to make a Walk with Francis 2.0 pledge and wear a blue wristband signifying their support.
Wuerl said that effort reflects a call for Catholics to follow the pope’s mantra to “go out, encounter and accompany” people, to bring Christ’s love to others, especially those in need. “And how do we do that? By going out and sharing the Good News in word and deed,” the cardinal said, adding he thinks that’s the take-away of the papal visit.
“Pope Francis said to us, ‘You have to keep moving forward. Always forward. Always forward in sharing the faith, renewing your own faith, and inviting others to experience it.”
Pope Francis demonstrated that spirit of encounter and accompaniment in his visit to Washington, where he joined the president at a White House welcome and prayed with the nation’s Catholic bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
After the canonization Mass, Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters of the Poor at their home in Washington, thanking them for their service to the elderly poor, and for their public stance for religious freedom and conscience rights in the order’s Supreme Court case involving the Affordable Care Act.
The pope also stopped by the archdiocese’s St. John Paul II Seminary, where he encouraged seminarians to adore Christ in their prayers and actions, and he told them the mark of a good priest is to go to bed tired after serving those in need.
The pope’s final day in Washington was highlighted by his address to the joint meeting of Congress, followed immediately afterward by his meeting the poor served by Catholic Charities.
Members of Congress from both parties listened in rapt attention as Pope Francis encouraged them to work together for the common good, including efforts to respect the dignity of life in all its stages, serve the poor and immigrants, and to protect the environment.
Washington’s archbishop praised the pope’s “ability to cross the aisle, his ability to reach across the entire complexity of the political situation in our country and touch core values, calling us to remember who we are, we’re a people deeply rooted in faith, in respect for human life, in the recognition that we should be caring for one another.”
Then the pope went straight from Capitol Hill to Catholic Charities, first meeting with clients, volunteers and staff members in St. Patrick’s Church and then with homeless people gathered outside for lunch at Catholic Charities’ St. Maria’s Meals program.
“I think that was a way in which he was lifting up for us, (that) our responsibilities go far beyond talking about and making laws. They go into touching people and helping people,” Wuerl said.
“And I think it pointed out that here we are, this is the capital of the most significant country on the planet and a 15 minute drive from the capital building where he had just spoken to the leadership of the country, he was able to be immersed in a sea of people of extreme need,” Wuerl said.
Washington’s archbishop added that contrast between those two events on the pope’s last day in Washington demonstrates “the need we still have to accomplish so much more. He went into St. Patrick’s Church and met all those street people, all those homeless people, and then went outside and gathered to eat with hundreds of people that Catholic Charities feeds every day.
It says the work goes on, and no matter how much we think we have accomplished politically, the need for one-on-one charity and the need for reaching out to the most needy continues to be our first obligation.”
Later that afternoon, Pope Francis appeared for his departure at Joint Base Andrews, again riding in the little black Fiat with the window down, smiling and waving to the crowd there.
One year later, the Walk with Francis effort continued in the Archdiocese of Washington. On Sept. 21, Catholics joined community members in advocating against a proposed measure to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the District of Columbia.
Later that afternoon, Wuerl joined volunteers serving dinner to the homeless in the St. Maria’s Meals program outside Catholic Charities’ headquarters in Washington, in the same location where Pope Francis had greeted the poor one year earlier.
And on Sept. 23, the anniversary of the Canonization Mass, Wuerl was scheduled to celebrate a Mass at the National Shrine’s Crypt Church, and plans were for the papal Fiat to be parked outside, to symbolize that Pope Francis’s journey continues through the prayers and good works of local Catholics.