Pope Francis afflicts the comfortable before comforting the afflicted

The pontiff’s US visit helped repair the scarred public face of the church

Pope Francis kisses and blesses Michael Keating (10), who has cerebral palsy, at Philadelphia airport. Photograph:Joseph Gidjunis/World Meeting of Families via AP

Pope Francis kisses and blesses Michael Keating (10), who has cerebral palsy, at Philadelphia airport. Photograph:Joseph Gidjunis/World Meeting of Families via AP


If the emphasis of the first half of Pope Francis’s US visit was about speaking hard truths to political and world leaders, the second half was about people, and critically for the credibility and future of the Catholic Church in America, victims of the clerical sex abuse.

Days after being criticised for emphasising the pain of the church in dealing with the abuse scandal rather than that of the survivors, Francis addressed the issue head on and spoke directly to the victims.

“God weeps,” he told bishops and seminarians at St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia yesterday shortly after meeting five adults, three women and two men, who were sexually abused as minors. The Pope’s spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi later clarified that two or three were victims of Catholic clerics or educators.

Accompanied by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, where the American clerical sex abuse scandal first broke in 2002, the survivors told their stories to the Pope, who told them he shared in their suffering and he had “pain and shame” over the church’s role.

“I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorrow of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart,” he said after the 30-minute meeting. “I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm. I am profoundly sorry.”

Francis affirmed his status as the “People’s Pope” and the “Pope of the Peripheries” on this trip by embracing ordinary Americans and the marginalised. On his five-day visit, the pontiff appealed to a sense of humanity and inclusiveness.

His visit and speeches were warmly received with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets of Washington, New York and Philadelphia to greet and cheer him. A rare moment of criticism came with his failure to address sex abuse victims earlier in the visit.

Message of inclusivity

He was not afraid to potentially ruffle feathers either. He made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order at the centre of a religious freedom battle with the Obama administration over a healthcare-law mandate to provide contraceptives to employees.

Francis also caused a political earthquake on Capitol Hill. A private moment with Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, a devout Catholic, moved the Republican to such an extent that he accelerated his retirement from politics. The event was so huge that it knocked coverage of the Pope’s visit off the news cycle.

While the focus of the first half of his US tour was on afflicting the comfortable, the second half was on comforting the afflicted.

It was hard not to be moved by the pope hugging inmates at a Pennsylvania prison yesterday or abruptly stopping the driver of his modest Fiat at Philadelphia airport so he could bless a boy with cerebral palsy in the crowd. Then there was the image of Francis embracing a five-year-old girl who breached a security barrier to ask the pope to protect her illegal immigrant parents from deportation.

These moments will linger long after Francis’s departure from Philadelphia last night and help repair the scarred public face of the American church that has lost millions of members in the past decade.

“We needed change, we needed someone with fresh ideas,” said Monica Kelly, outside the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia – renamed “Pope-adelphia” by celebrating pilgrims for the weekend. Kelly drove five hours from Altoona, Pennsylvania, one of many who travelled long distances to hear the pope speak.

In Congress on Thursday he weighed in on a divisive issue that is generating xenophobic rhetoric in the Republican presidential race, urging legislators to reject “a mindset of hostility” towards immigrants.

On Saturday, he addressed immigrants directly in a symbolic setting – the birthplace of America: Philadelphia’s Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were adopted.

Taking the stage to the strains of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a fitting anthem for this “Pope of the Poor”, he stood at the lectern used by President Abraham Lincoln to deliver the famous Gettysburg Address, his war-time exhortation that all people are equal.

Encouraging immigrants

His remarks come at a time when businessman Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, said that as president he would deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and build a wall along the US-Mexican border.

He and others have also called on immigrants to speak English in America. The Spanish-speaking pope spoke English, which he learned during a stay in Dublin in the early 1980s, only a handful of times.

“I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” the pope told the immigrants at Independence Hall. In the crowd, people waved Mexican flags.

Francis made the issue personal on his trip, stressing his own background as an immigrant, the son of Italian parents growing up in Argentina. On his departure from New York, he asked that his helicopter fly past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, for decades the entry-point into the US for millions of new Americans.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, said the pope told him that his native Buenos Aires was “a city of immigrants too”.

The litmus test of the pope’s visit, which ended with a giant mass on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway yesterday, is whether US politicians, including the six Catholic Republicans running for president, will respond to his messages when divisions run so deep.

“He is one of those world leaders like Mandela that people listen to,” said Jim Carr who travelled from Waterford to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the event that brought the Pope to the US.

“Any politician in America who makes any serious statement about being a Catholic on any level cannot completely ignore what he has said about immigration or the environment.”

In the poisonous arena of US election politics, even the forceful appeals of a popular pontiff on a groundbreaking visit are likely to go unheard.