The excitement over Pope Francis’ visit last week to Philadelphia, New York and Washington was not just a fuss over the man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The joy beaming from a million faces, the pauses for deep contemplation and the careful study of words and gestures of course had something to do with the pope.
But the emotions and thoughts of the past week, now become memories of word and deed, have mostly to do with our response to the divine presence. We responded with joy not merely to the man who is Pope Francis but to the vicar – the representative – of Christ among us.
That representation is not in itself explanation enough. It took the man from Argentina by way of Rome to help us see what has always been there but which we allow the cares of the day to obscure: Almighty and ever-living God is with us. He is not a figure remote in space or the lead character in the Good Book.
Francis reminded us last week of the divine life ever present within us, around us in creation and among us, his children.
In Philadelphia you could sense something out of the ordinary, divine even, in the silence during the liturgies at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Silence among 1,600 in the cathedral was remarkable enough; among hundreds of thousands stretched out on a long boulevard, the silence was other-worldly.
In my view, the Holy Spirit was powerfully present in that old basilica or the two-mile long, open-air cathedral of the parkway. The Spirit was present as well among the thousands of people jammed behind security checkpoints who never made it into the Mass. Despite waiting hours to no avail, they nevertheless they remained calm and cool. In Philadelphia, this was a small miracle in itself.
You could sense truth in your bones as you listened to the pope’s speeches at Congress, at the United Nations and at Independence Hall. If they made us nod with agreement or squirm with discomfort, that wasn’t merely fine oratory by the speaker in white but an encounter with truth. Our conscience, if we openly engaged it, resonated with the truth like chords on a piano – notes from without, harmonizing within.
If you stood behind a barricade as Pope Francis passed by, it was thrilling to see him arms-length away in your own backyard. But more than your own excitement was that of everyone around you as a collective roar rose up and the popemobile cruised by.
That shared joy was a moment of the divine, a sign of the presence of the creator who delights in his creation.
All this joy, this open-mindedness, this basking in reverent silence were signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. We noticed those signs last week because Pope Francis helped dispose us to noticing. He opened a crack in our hearts and the Spirit came pouring in.
But those moments happen all the time. The challenge is to recognize them when they occur and thank God for his loving presence.
God is present in the joy of two grown men hugging and laughing like kids when their team scores a touchdown at the last moment to win the game –more than football is going on there.
God is present when we hear or read a pastor or speaker utter a phrase that strikes a chord within us, drawing us into a deep truth.
God is present when we notice the silence while walking in the woods, or praying in an empty room, or sitting with a family as their loved one takes his or her last breaths, or meditating with the congregation in church. These are all divine moments, fleeting yet profound.
Pope Francis has helped us to see them for what they are: signs of the God who is with us, walking with us in all the moments of our life. As the pope told thousands during the Festival of Families in Philadelphia: “All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful brings us to God. Because God is good, God is beautiful, God is the truth.”
I believe that outlook on life is the legacy of the pope’s apostolic visit to the United States that may endure longest among people than any of the memories imprinted upon us last week.
It is the starting mark of a renewal not only for Philadelphia but for the country too, thanks to a man from far away who drew near to us, and we to each other, and all to God.
Indeed they were “days of great grace,” as he said. Aren’t they all?