Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis came from “a far country.” Compared to many of those lined up for the papacy, he was not well-traveled, he was not a great linguist, neither a Vatican diplomat nor a great international networker.
Francis came to the papacy with significant personal gifts and history, but first and foremost he stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s as a pastor from South America. He was a Cardinal Archbishop from Argentina, and that is what he brought as he filled the shoes of St. Peter. That was his gift to the papacy and that was his gift to the whole church.
I think this was also the greatest gift he brought in his Sept. 22-28, 2015 visit to the United States, the one-year anniversary of which falls this week.
Because the USA is bordered by two great oceans to the East and West and by relatively calm neighbors to the North and South, we are too often insular in our perspectives. It seems like we are an island nation. News reporting focuses more on local affairs.
Many Americans have not traveled beyond our borders, and too often there is a startling ignorance of geography, international history and foreign affairs.
Therefore, one of the greatest contributions Pope Francis made in his visit to the United States was to open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the broader vistas of the world and a wider perspective of the Catholic Church.
Here, therefore, are eight things the Argentinian Pope helped us learn on his visit to the USA.
He struggled to speak English
Pope Francis made a valiant effort to address us in our own language. In doing so he reminded us that a huge number of our fellow human beings not only speak a different language, but that a large number of our fellow Americans have Spanish as their first language.
Why does this matter? Because of our world domination, we can all too easily take it for granted that wherever we go people will speak our language and therefore know our culture.
When the pope struggled to speak English, we were made to see that our culture and language is not a priority for everyone.
He spoke as the son of immigrants
As the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Pope Francis reminded us of the importance of immigrants to the history of the United States. As we struggle to cope with a new wave of immigration, Pope Francis reminds us that this is a noble struggle and one which is part of our heritage.
He is the son of immigrants, and apart from the Native Americans, everyone who is here is the descendant of immigrants. The pope’s presence here reminded us that we are a nation of immigrants, so we should see Christ in our immigrant neighbor and find proper ways to welcome them.
His name is Francis
The present pope took the name of the great St. Francis because he wanted to bring the good news to the poor by being poor. Simply through his name and also through his message he brought to light the need to follow Jesus Christ in the way of St. Francis.
His name reminded us of our obligation to the poor, and our obligation to praise God in all his created works.
He represented the Church in the developing world
The majority of the worlds’ Christians are already in the global South. The future of the Catholic Church lies in Africa, Asia and South America. The first pope from the developing world helps to shift our attention away from our own hot button issues to the needs and concerns of the developing world.
Pope Francis was a visual sign that “the church is alive, the church is young, the church is Southern!”
He opened his eyes and his heart to America
Pope Francis had never visited the United States previously, and some of his words have been harshly critical of American economics and power. His views were criticized as naive and uninformed.
His visit to America showed his willingness to listen, learn and to welcome all as he was welcomed. As he was willing to learn from us, we were emboldened to learn from him.
He put our concerns in perspective
When huge numbers of Catholics are living is poverty, unemployment, disease and hunger, our own concerns in the affluent North are put into perspective. Pope Francis represents the homeless immigrants on the move, the slum dwellers in the great and terrible cities of the South, the victims of war, terrorism and violence.
When he helps us see our needy brothers and sisters, our petty worries, fears and political agendas become insignificant.
He treasured the family
In his visit to Philadelphia the pope stressed the joy and responsibility of family life. Instead of spending all his time and energy condemning abortion, promiscuity, pornography, prostitution and all the things that destroy family life, he chose to emphasize the joy, the fulfillment and rewards of a dedicated, self sacrificial and giving family and community life.
From this we learned again to spend more time building up all that is good, beautiful and true rather than simply castigating all that is negative.
He Revealed Jesus
Every priest is called to be an icon of Christ, but Pope Francis spoke simply, acted with gracious concern for all and showed the humility, simplicity and wisdom of Christ. Like Jesus he was shrewd, courteous and cautious with the politicians while preaching the gospel courageously.
He reached out to the poor, the needy, the wounded and the young, while welcoming also the rich and powerful who wished to hear his words.
To put it simply, if the pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, we saw Christ’s delegate in action.