On a sweltering morning this past August, my husband and I sat in folding chairs in St. Peter’s Square hoping to meet Pope Francis. Surrounding us were about 100 other couples, almost everyone dressed in either wedding dresses or tuxedos, as part of the Sposi Novelli celebration. Italian for “new spouses,” the weekly ceremony allows newly married Catholic couples a brief meeting with the pope following his Wednesday audience.
After a prayerful audience and hours in the sun, our group, a sea of tulle and taffeta and ties, was escorted onto the steps of the basilica, as Francis drew closer. And then—finally!—there he was, within feet of us. One by one, each couple grinned and shook the pope’s hand or embraced him. I had rehearsed over and over what I would say in Spanish, but, when the time came and Francis reached out his hand toward me, I only managed to squeak out, “Thank you for your example of mercy,” in English, while barely holding back tears. In this brief and mildly embarrassing meeting with the pope, I felt what Francis has been proclaiming all along: a personal encounter is a powerful thing.
This September, millions of Americans had the chance to encounter Pope Francis during his trips to Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia, including world leaders, prisoners and eager pilgrims. Prior to this visit, Pope Francis had never been to the United States, yet his words and message have been with us almost daily. For more than two years now, news of Francis’ papacy and personality has inundated many American Catholic households. His accessible, merciful, pastoral tone and the authenticity of his faith have clearly come across in both Catholic and secular media, and many Americans, Catholic or not, feel close to this man who lives thousands of miles away in Rome. For many his arrival felt less like an official visit and more like a homecoming.
Of course Francis cannot make it to every U.S. city, and so we at America Media have worked hard to keep Catholics across the country connected with Francis’ comings and goings in Cuba and here in the United States. Our reporters were on the ground throughout, bringing stories not just of Francis—as he canonized Junípero Serra, chatted with schoolchildren in Harlem and celebrated Mass in Philadelphia, among other events—but also of the people who came to see him. We welcome you to engage with this content at papalvisit.americamedia.org and to be a part of the America Media community during this exciting time for our church.
In the end, the story of Francis’ visit is, at its heart, a story of community. It has challenged American Catholics to acknowledge connections to those who may hold differing political views or those who may be on the periphery of society. It has reminded us that we should put as much effort and attention into welcoming our neighbor—the poor, the suffering, the dying, the imprisoned, those without a home or family or nation—as we have in welcoming Francis into our midst.
It is a fact not lost on our nation’s vice president. “I’m excited quite frankly, as a practicing Catholic.... The whole world is getting to see what are the basic essential elements of what constitutes Catholicism.” Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. told Matt Malone, S.J., president of America Media, in an exclusive interview a few days before Francis’ visit.
In other words, the papal visit has put the spotlight not just on Francis the man, but on the Gospel message he proclaims and lives: Mercy. Always mercy. Over and over again, Francis directs us back to Christ, who guides us in our own journeys and whom we must recognize in all those we meet along the way.