WASHINGTON — On Pope Francis’ final day in the nation’s capital, the nation’s powerful lawmakers listened to him give a historic address — but it was the city’s poor and marginalized who got up close and personal with the Holy Father.
After delivering the first-ever address by a pope to the U.S. Congress in a joint meeting, Pope Francis departed in a black Fiat for St. Patrick’s Church and the Washington Archdiocese’s Catholic Charities headquarters next door on G Street, where he met with more than 500 people served by the archdiocese’s charitable programs.
Once he entered St. Patrick’s, Pope Francis walked down the church’s center aisle, greeting more than 250 people — including some parishioners — who thronged around him, left and right. Most people were Catholic Charities clients from 19 of their 65 programs, including the homeless, unaccompanied minors from Central America, persons in drug-addiction programs and people with developmental disabilities.
Before addressing the gathering, he honored a statue of Mary and prayed at the Marian chapel for a few minutes, before turning to thank them for welcoming him to their church. Standing in front of a chair set before the altar, he told them they reminded him of St. Joseph: a saint who “is the one I go to whenever I am ‘in a fix’” and who also had to ask God why he was homeless with the Blessed Virgin and the Son of God.
“As it did for Joseph, faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us,” he said. “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”
Encouraging the people to pray to Jesus in all life situations, the Pope taught that prayer unites men and women, rich and poor, into a brotherhood.
“It opens our hearts and reminds us of a beautiful truth, which we sometimes forget,” he said. “In prayer, we all learn to say ‘Father,’ ‘Dad.’ We learn to see one another as brothers and sisters.”
The Holy Father later invited people to pray the Our Father together with him — “I’ll pray in Spanish, and you pray in English,” he added with a smile and twinkle in his eye — and blessed the crowd before taking a passageway that joined the church and Catholic Charities’ offices.
Entertainment and Lunch
As the Holy Father blessed the St. Martin de Porres Chapel inside Catholic Charities, a crowd of 300 people, most of them homeless persons served by Catholic Charities’ shelters and housing assistance programs, sat at tables decked with sky blue cloths, white chairs and yellow flowers — the colors of Argentina’s flag. For a couple of hours, they had waited for the Pope’s arrival and heard entertainment. Irish Tenor Mark Forrest was on hand, performing for them such songs as Danny Boy and the Prayer of St. Francis, among others.
When the Holy Father emerged from the doors of Catholic Charities, the people leapt to their feet and cheered. The Holy Father then blessed the food, and said in Italian with a smile, “Buon appetito!”
The food prepared for the lunch was chicken and pasta salad served by volunteers with St. Maria’s Meals, which provides hot meals to the hungry there every Wednesday night and at two other locations in Maryland at other times.
D.C. native Katie English told the Register she has volunteered with the program for the past two years with her entire family, which was on hand preparing the meals. She said she appreciated that Pope Francis was shining a light on the homeless. English, who is a sophomore at John Carroll University, said she tries to speak person to person herself with the homeless whenever she meets them traveling through the metro system.
English said she has really tried to take to heart the Pope’s message to “be in solidarity” with the poor and marginalized.
“He’s really inspired me to go out and serve others,” she said, “whether it is people with disabilities or people in need of food and shelter.”
The Personal Touch
Yet if the plan had been for the Holy Father to casually meet and greet the seated tables before taking off, it was quickly abandoned. People thronged about the Holy Father, shaking his hands and asking for his blessing, as he made his way slowly through the tables, shaking hands and asking people to pray for him, until finally getting back into his black Fiat 500.
One 8-year-old child, Steven Waller, stepped right through the adults ringed around the Pope to give him a letter he handwrote. The little boy asked the Holy Father to pray that his mom would be able to find a job.
“Shaking the Pope’s hand was amazing,” Waller told the Register afterward.
Brittney Anderson, 25, had brought her daughter Anaiyah, 3, to see the Pope. Anderson entered Catholic Charities’ housing program in September 2014, while she finished her associate degree that paved her way to work in medical billing and coding, and that is helping her save up for an apartment to rent at market rates. “He’s a very religious person, with a great heart,” Anderson said. “He cares about people — it doesn’t matter what race; he’s just a very loving person.”
Eric Dyer, 50, shared that at first he was not too interested to see the Pope.
“But it means a whole lot when you have a meal with somebody,” he said.
Dyer has been in shelters on and off since 1988, but he is talking advantage of Catholic Charities resources to develop skills and training to get himself out of his sheltered situation and onto his dream of building a nonprofit.
Some Things to Remember
More than 104,000 people signed the Walk With Francis pledge, a campaign that asked Catholics to pledge to pray, serve or act, following the example and teaching of Pope Francis, and to challenge others to do the same. Scott Patrick, Catholic Charities of D.C.’s incoming chairman of the board, told the Register they were presenting the Pope with a book of 400 pages with the names of all who committed.
“I think this kind of defines his pilgrimage,” he said. “It’s about everything he’s been talking to the world about, which is outreach to those that are less fortunate, to serve the poor and the needy; reach out and help your neighbor, as we’ve learned growing up in the Catholic Church.”
Added Patrick, “I think people are going to walk away from this encounter touched, both spiritually and emotionally.”
Waller’s mom, Nichole Austin, who graduated from a hospitality school and is looking for employment in the industry, said she was impressed by her son’s bravery and the whole experience of meeting the Pope.
“It’s definitely something we’re going to be talking about at the dinner table and for a while now.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.
Catholic News Agency’s Matt Hadro contributed to this report.