Guest commentary by William A. Jonas
Last week, I experienced two events that I never dreamed I would. The first was being part of the planning team for the Canonization Mass of Blessed Junípero Serra, celebrated by Pope Francis. The second was the surreal experience of meeting the Holy Father at the Apostolic Nunciature prior to his departure for New York.
As you might guess, I am not a practicing Roman Catholic. Instead, I am a ruling elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. I happen to work at The Catholic University of America and have had the great fortune of helping plan the visit of two popes to our campus— Benedict XVI in 2008 and Francis in 2015. The visit of Pope Benedict was extraordinary – planning an event for 30,000 was incredible, exhilarating and moving. And then there is Francis.
It was clear from the initial planning stages that Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s primary focus for the Washington, D.C. portion of Francis’ visit would be the celebration of the Eucharist. Cardinal Wuerl is the Archbishop of Washington and also serves as the chancellor for The Catholic University of America. He wanted to have the Canonization Mass on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with the faithful spilling onto the grounds of the university — the only such institution in the United States founded by the U.S. bishops.
The energy and excitement on campus September 23 was palpable. As the popemobile entered the campus, the roar of those gathered signaled to all that something special was happening. Regardless of one’s faith (or absence thereof), the smile on the face of Pope Francis provided a calm and a warmth that is difficult to put into words. The fact that Pope Francis decided to drive through the crowd twice (this was not the plan) — necessitating a three point turn for the popemobile — is illustrative of his love of people. He felt that one side of the crowd had not received enough attention the first time through. So, all the Suburbans and other security vehicles followed suit and drove through again because, well, the pope said so!
It was Pope Francis’ message to Congress on September 24 that I found most poignant during his visit. He only had to say two words to illicit a standing ovation from all gathered (on both sides of the aisle): Golden Rule. Is there anything more simple than the suggestion that one should treat others as one would like to be treated? This isn’t even religious, which I suppose is what makes this so poignant. These simple words that, if put into practice, could change the world were given such gravitas because they were spoken by a powerful figure. Yet, my assumption is that Francis does not see himself this way.
The humility with which Pope Francis carries himself should be the envy of all — Christians and non-Christians, those who believe and those who don’t. If not the most powerful person in the world, he is certainly, as they say, in the team picture. Yet, at the end of many of his addresses, he leaves his audience with a request: that all should pray for him. He understands and embraces that he is human and that we all must work together to ensure the life of the earth and the people on it. It is not as if Pope Francis seeks controversial stances on issues or endeavors to change the nature of the Roman Catholic Church, as some desire while others fear. Instead, I believe he humbly applies logic, common sense and human nature to help us all sort through the great mysteries that surround faith, whatever one’s beliefs.
Finally, I had the remarkable and unforgettable experience of meeting the Holy Father just before he left the Apostolic Nunciature to travel to New York. The meeting lasted about 10 seconds and consisted of Cardinal Wuerl introducing me to the Holy Father in Italian. I’m not sure exactly what was said – or even what I said. The point was that I was shaking the hand of Pope Francis, and for that I will be forever grateful.
As Pope Francis continued his journey up and down the east coast of the United States, meeting with those in prison, those who had been abused by priests and the thousands of faithful Catholics, it continued to be clear that he loves people, is called by the people and that people drive him to be the best that he can be — through prayer. And that’s something we can all do, and it costs us nothing.
WILLIAM A. JONAS is assistant vice president for university relations at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is also a ruling elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia, where he lives with his wife Melissa and their two children Spencer and Claire.