What resonated most with Webster University alumna and Loretto Community member Sister Sharon Kassing when Pope Francis visited the United States was simple: nearly every photograph taken from the trip was of him smiling.
“Popes don’t smile very often,” Kassing said. “I went to the grocery store this morning, and what struck me were the news and magazine pictures of him in the checkout line. In every single one, there was this big, broad authentic smile.”
The pope’s six-day visit began Tuesday, Sept. 22 and concluded Sunday, Sept. 27. The trip began two days in Washington D.C., highlighted by the first U.S. canonization as Junipero Serra, an 18th Century Spanish Franciscan, became the first Hispanic saint in the nation’s history.
Later on Wednesday at the White House, the pope emphasized the continuing battle against climate change, pointing out President Obama’s clean air initiative.
“His whole approach to environmental issues is based on good science,” Kassing said. “I would count that as being a good Jesuit.”
Webster associate professor of religious studies Sister Annie Stevens saw the speech as a reflection of Francis’ global priorities.
“Francis calls people’s attention to the global and the local; the personal and the universal; the mandating of the need to be aware of our home environment and the way our decisions do matter,” Stevens said. “It’s a holistic view of the world and of all creation.”
A speech before a joint session of Congress followed on Thursday morning.
This was the first time a pope has addressed Congress, and Francis used the opportunity to discuss immigration, poverty and the importance of family – topics he has written about extensively in his recent encyclical teaching to Catholics worldwide.
“This is the first time the Catholic Church has a leader that comes from the global south,” Stevens said. “It’s significant in relation to the Webster ideals of global citizenship and a more holistic view of the way we look at the world.”
Sister Kassing said she believes the pope has a style that puts his teachings into action. Even something as simple as Francis’ choice of automobile reflects his teachings, she said.
“The irony of his little Fiat in a line of big SUVs – who can argue with his display of what he expects of us?” Kassing said.
While in Washington, Francis met with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order fighting the administration’s birth-control mandate.
Kassing said Francis has opened up a new era of a welcoming church.
“To make forgiveness (of sin) possible (for everyone) is in perfect line with his message of mercy,” Kassing said. “So, to hear him talk about the poor, the suffering and the plight of women is of primary interest to us in the Loretto Community.”
Many in the church who were in line with former Pope Benedict’s positions, including St. Louis archbishop Raymond Burke, find the new pope disconcerting.
“Francis comes along – opening up and welcoming back divorced Catholics – and that’s been a problem for some people,” Stevens said.
Stevens said what the pope represents is humility.
“What (he) is actually speaking out against is unbridled greed, not sharing or considering the needs of one another,” Stevens said. “He takes us out of that just-us-and-nobody-else mindset that we can get caught up in.”
Interfaith Alliance board member and Loretto Sister Maureen McCormack sees the pope’s political risks as a move to trump the divisions among differing faiths.
“So many people of different faith abroad are enthusiastic about this pope,” McCormack said. “His work speaks to people of other faiths and of no faith.”
On Friday, Francis spoke in front of the United Nations general assembly, reiterating his message of global accountability and community service.
“He is really, deeply committed to living in community,” Stevens said. “He doesn’t stay all day in the papal apartment.”
For Kassing, it’s a combination of global community involvement and service to others that has coined a new term that warrants Francis’ constant smile: radical humility.
“He is giving us new meaning,” Kassing said. “We need someone to show us what happiness looks like.”
The pope wrapped up his visit over the weekend in Philadelphia, leaving for the Vatican on Sunday evening.