Pope Francis rides in his popemobile down Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Jewel Samad, pool)
Pilgrim & Prophet: A Jesuit Take on the Pope’s Historic Trip to the U.S.

By Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ

Have there been six days in recent memory that were more inspiring or exciting than those Pope Francis spent in the United States? His acts of humility and words of mercy — shared everywhere from the halls of Congress to a Catholic Charities meeting with the homeless — reminded us what our faith is truly about. Pope Francis’ message is for everyone. In venturing out to meet all people where they are and lead us to find God in all things, this Jesuit pope and pilgrim helps members and friends of the Society of Jesus better understand our unique spirituality, vocation and mission in the world.

Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ
Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ  
I was fortunate enough to attend Pope Francis’ special welcome ceremony at the White House on September 23, the day after he landed in Washington, D.C., from Cuba. Like so many Americans, I could not help but smile as he arrived to meet President Obama in a tiny Fiat, dwarfed by Secret Service SUVs. I was even more thrilled to see this simple moment matched by his humble speech. Who, at 78, learns a new language and then addresses the world in a foreign country? I found myself thinking of Saint Ignatius, who as an adult sat in a classroom with school children who mocked him as he learned Latin and gained the education he needed to transform the world. We know of Pope Francis’ special concern for people on the margins, especially migrants and refugees. It was fitting, then, that he began his address at the White House with these words: “As the son of an immigrant family, I’m happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.” How wonderfully Jesuit to open a dialogue on immigration with a personal reflection!

He continued this theme when he met the U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle: “Welcome the immigrant into your parishes. I was a pastor in the south. Welcome my parishioners into your home.”

We witnessed history when Pope Francis addressed Congress the following day. He artfully spoke of four towering Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. In honoring Lincoln’s defense of liberty, King’s championing liberty in plurality and non-exclusion, Day’s work for social justice and human rights, and Merton’s belief in our capacity for dialogue and openness to God, Pope Francis missioned us to be better Americans, citizens, and, in turn, servants to the world.

  Pope Francis addressing a joint meeting of Congress (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
  Pope Francis addressing a joint meeting of Congress
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
After leaving a building that embodies power, Pope Francis went to the powerless, joining Catholic Charities to have lunch with Washington’s homeless. He identified the homeless with Jesus, reminding them that the Son of God’s life began without a roof over his head. The pope once again drew on the Jesuit notion of finding God in all things: “Jesus keeps knocking on our door, in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors and the faces of those that are at our side.”

He also engaged in a little imaginative prayer — another Ignatian practice — and told those gathered, “You make me think of Saint Joseph. Your faces remind me of his.” What struck me most about this chapter in the pope’s trip was how vividly he brought to life the adage, “Preach, and when necessary, use words.” Whether or not we remember what Pope Francis said, we will remember what he preached.

Pope Francis’ whirlwind tour of the United States continued in New York, where he returned to a place that symbolizes prestige with his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Looking out at his audience, recognizing there are nations at war with each other, some that do not trade as freely with each other, some that would rather not sit beside each other, he brought a message of peace, hope, reconciliation and challenge. The pope was not afraid to reflect on areas where we succeeded and failed. And he was not afraid to call all of us to think beyond our own nations and embrace this planet we all share.

One of the most moving moments of Pope Francis’ time here was a stop at what has become sacred space in New York: Ground Zero. Here we saw the pope as pastor, consoling and comforting family members who lost loved ones to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Following a tragedy some have used to divide people against religious and ethnic lines, Pope Francis prayed with religious leaders of different backgrounds, seeking to unite all faiths, peoples and cultures. It was powerful that he knew how to greet each person according to her or his own tradition, treating them as an individual. The journey to peace begins with a single embrace, and Pope Francis embraced the world.

Pope Francis visiting inmates at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis visiting inmates at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Fortunately, the pope also brought us some lighthearted moments. It was fun to watch him meet children at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. He laughingly motioned them to sing louder as they performed “The Prayer of Saint Francis” and listened intently as a little girl showed him how to operate an interactive computer screen: “You have to double click it!” she instructed.

Throughout the week, I was interviewed on MSNBC and CNN about the pope’s visit. In the wake of John Boehner’s announcement that he would resign as Speaker of the House of Representatives, I was surprised to see the pope’s travels continue to dominate the news cycle. The journalists I spoke with told me, “This is where the people want to be.” They wanted to contemplate what Pope Francis described when preaching on the Prophet Isaiah at Madison Square Garden: “The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light.”

Pope Francis’ journey ended in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. He talked about love when he shared the story of a child asking him what God did before creating the world: “Before creating the world, God loved, because God is love.”

Of course, that is the First Principle and Foundation in Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Savior and, by so doing, save her or his own soul, a meditation Jorge Mario Bergoglio first prayed as a Jesuit novice in 1958 and lives out in his papacy.

In his final open air homily on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Pope Francis gave us another example of how to proclaim God’s love to others: “Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home.”

Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, appeared on several major news networks to discuss Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.
Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, appeared on several major news networks to discuss Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.

As Pope Francis boarded his plane to return to Rome, I realized I was going to miss him! We all got used to having him in our homes, laughing, crying and praying with this man we love. Now, we must live out the mission he preached on his pilgrimage, going forth, like Saint Ignatius, to set the world on fire.

Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, is president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. This reflection is based on “The Jesuit Take,” a video series he filmed with the IN Network. Visit to view the videos.

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