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Forget the Expert Analyses. What Did Pope Francis Say to You?

© Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA
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Writer realizes the best analysis of how Francis impacts her life is found outside of media

This morning, as I dressed in the pre-dawn darkness and tucked my few possessions into my jacket pockets, I asked myself, “Why?”

Why had I traveled more than two hours by train from Philadelphia to Washington with barely enough time to catch a few hours’ sleep before watching a speech? Why had I given up two precious days at my very first World Meeting of Families to do it? Why had I felt compelled to accept a ticket from a congressman in a state far away from my own to watch Pope Francis address Congress, even when I knew that my view was likely to be obscured by the crowd in the shadow of the historic venue?

To be honest, as I boarded the Metro with my sister and brother-in-law Thursday morning, I still wasn’t sure of my answers. And when my pocketed toothpaste tube triggered a full TSA patdown, I once again considered how nice it might have been to watch the speech from the comfort of my Philadelphia apartment, in high definition with expert commentary. Standing on the grass outside the Capitol, would I even be able to hear anything? As we reached the Capitol, my cell phone connection dropped off. I began to worry more. How was I supposed to know what was happening if I couldn’t check and see?

I needn’t have worried.  God is good.  As soon as my feet hit the storied West Lawn, He began answering my questions.

For the five days leading up to the Pope’s speech, I’d been on a pilgrimage. Thursday morning brought new companions for my spiritual journey. By my estimate, thousands of ticketed pilgrims stood with me on the West Lawn for approximately three hours waiting to hear from Pope Francis. The lack of a solid cellular connection turned out to be a blessing, as instead of using technology to track the Pope’s progress or otherwise pass the time, we simply fell into natural conversation with the folks around us.

We all chatted, sharing the details of our separate journeys to the West Lawn and wondering together, “What will Francis say?” Cut off from the outside commentary that accompanied Pope Francis’ movement toward us, all we had were the silent jumbotrons, the patriotic and religious tunes played by the Army Band, and our own ponderings.

A fellow Notre Dame alum stood alone, garbed in Irish finery, and told me how honored he was to be present. Two young seminarians recounted their experience of Wednesday’s canonization Mass and shared their hopes for that morning’s address. Nearby, two young women split a peanut butter sandwich and played cards to pass the time. Immediately behind me, a group of Catholic high school students worked on their calculus homework while a nearby Dominican sister tried to pray the rosary. I say “tried” because Sister graciously and joyfully paused her prayers numerous times to take selfies with the kids.

As the motorcade inched closer, I had one of those “God loves you so much, Lisa” moments when I noticed the Congressional seal on the lanyard around the neck of the suit-wearing young man beside me. He told me he was a young grad student who worked full time for a congressman. It turned out to be my congressman!  Initially, we both laughed at the coincidence, but soon, I began to suspect it was no coincidence at all.  The “color commentary” he began to provide for me evidenced both his knowledge of the procedural movements of the morning and also his deep love for his faith and for Pope Francis. Looking back now, I smile at how God placed me right next to the one “expert” I needed in order to understand what was happening. This young man, living in service to both Church and country, was likely one of the very hearts that Pope Francis hoped to inspire with his words. I believe he succeeded, and that my new friend’s already bright future will shine even brighter because of Francis’ speech.

Still not having read the official transcript of the Pope’s remarks to Congress, I will leave it to others to parse them in depth. For my part, I will simply share that my fellow “West Lawn pilgrims” and I were generous with our applause and excitement for what we heard. I believe each of us was uplifted and challenged in our own way. Those who applauded most robustly for the Golden Rule may also be the people who spent Thursday night researching Servant of God Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Just as we each came to the lawn with unique circumstances, opportunities and struggles, it’s likely that each of us walked away with varying “marching orders” from Pope Francis.

For me, and perhaps for many of the West Lawn pilgrims, the moment of greatest joy was not Pope Francis’ speech, but what came next.  After his formal remarks were finished, we waited with anticipation, and soon, our moment came. Pope Francis emerged from the Capitol onto the balcony high above us and offered personal blessings, most especially for the children in our midst. He humbly asked for our prayers and good wishes. All too soon, he bid us goodbye with three simple words: “God bless America”.  Then it was time for us to say goodbye, as well.

The time we West Lawn pilgrims spent dispersing was the only “debriefing” I got before writing this piece. Without wifi, my laptop or expert breakdown opinions, I was left to simply rely on the notes I had scrawled by hand. But through the act of writing it, I rekindled the motivation I felt as my heart responded to the challenges our Holy Father laid before us:

… to care for the vulnerable
… to shelter the homeless
… to welcome the refugee
… to love one another.

Other writers will likely proffer a more eloquent analysis of the speech. But for me, it is enough that I was able to answer the question: “Why am I here?” Despite the hassles and small sacrifices endured on the way, the opportunity to stand on that lawn, to learn from and to receive a mission from Pope Francis, was worth every step of the journey.

Why? Because in the end, I learned that the response to today’s speech which matters most for my soul and my continual path toward God is my own. And the greatest proof of the speech’s efficacy in my life will be how I choose to let it guide and illuminate the next steps along my pilgrimage.

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