By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — On any given weekday morning, it’s a sure bet that you’ll find at least a few residents of the Cardinal Medeiros Home for Retired Priests gathered in the facility’s spacious community room after breakfast, enjoying coffee, some light conversation, and the fellowship of their brother priests.
But with the wall-to-wall media coverage of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States last week, the only wall that captivated the retirees’ attention for several days was the one to which a flat screen TV was affixed, displaying live images of every step of the Holy Father’s remarkable U.S. pilgrimage.
On the pope’s first full day in Washington, D.C., several priests were anxiously awaiting the pontiff’s welcome at the White House. Seated in an assortment of recliners and couches were Father Thomas L. Rita, Father John A. Gomes, Father Paul E. Canuel, Father Thomas C. Lopes, and Father Edward E. Correia, who handled the all-important remote control duties on this momentous occasion.
Flipping back and forth between broadcasts on MSNBC, Fox News, EWTN and Boston’s Catholic TV, the group settled in to witness this first-ever visit of Pope Francis to the “land of the free and home of the brave,” as the Holy Father would so eloquently describe during his speech before a joint session of Congress the following day.
Reacting to the color commentary from the various networks, the priests began to talk about some of the critical issues that Pope Francis was likely to address: immigration, climate change, poverty, and religious liberty were all possibilities. Many were certain he would discuss the environment, given the topic of his most recent encyclical, Laudato Sí’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”).
As President Barack Obama emerged with Pope Francis at his side from the entrance to the south lawn of the White House, the chatter ceased and everyone’s attention turned to the live feed from Washington.
The president began his welcoming remarks by praising the “deep devotion of some 70 million American Catholics” and the “role the Catholic Church has played in strengthening America.”
“I have seen firsthand how every single day, Catholic communities — priests, nuns, laity — are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating our children, and fortifying the faith that sustains so many,” President Obama said.
Several priests nodded in silent agreement.
When it came time for the Holy Father to speak, he began in his typical fashion by making a humble statement that instantly resonated with everyone in the room.
“Mr. President, I am deeply grateful for your welcome in the name of all Americans,” Pope Francis began. “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families. I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.”
In short order, the Holy Father touched upon the importance of freedom and religious liberty, the need to address the current immigration crisis, and the urgency of reducing air pollution. He also mentioned the U.S. efforts to “mend broken relationships,” likely referring to the recent restoring of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which the pope facilitated.
As the welcoming ceremony concluded, Father Canuel said he was very happy the pontiff had placed the immigration issue front and center. In fact, he had heard Pope Francis originally intended to enter the United States via Mexico, but scheduling conflicts — and a required stop at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe — made that grand gesture impossible.
“I’m very proud of the fact that (Pope Francis) is of Hispanic/Latin American heritage and yet he’s coming here and speaking in English and calling attention to the immigrant situation — not only here, but also keeping in mind those poor refugees from Syria,” Father Canuel told The Anchor. “I’m glad that he at least touched on the international treatment of immigrants as people with dignity, and I think President Obama is really sensitive to that situation — no matter what we may think of him politically.”
Father Rita also praised the pope’s attention to the ongoing plight of immigrants and noted how important the notion of a cultural “melting pot” was in making America what it is today.
“Take the Spanish influence — whether it be from the people of Mexico or any of the countries in Latin or Central America,” Father Rita said. “They bring with them a love for the Church and an enthusiasm as demonstrated in the Liturgy. This is something that we somewhat staid Catholics here in the United States aren’t used to and I think it’s good for us to see this enthusiasm and maybe it will rekindle our own commitments to worship.”
Pope Francis’ mention of climate change didn’t surprise anyone.
“I thought he was right on spot in terms of the encyclical letter that he had promulgated not too long ago,” Father Rita said. “He seems to want to impart to the American people a congratulatory note that he sees these things happening in the United States and he sees this present administration on target with world issues of peace and the environment.”
The retired priests were impressed with the president’s commendation of the Catholic Church in providing corporal and Spiritual works of mercy in the U.S.
“I was very proud to hear the (president) talk about what the Catholics have been doing and listing all the different services that he is grateful for that we don’t always hear so much about,” Father Canuel said. “To have him express it in the very beginning of his welcome to the Holy Father was encouraging.”
“We’re used to a society now where we expect the government to do things, whereas earlier on the churches did it,” Father Rita agreed. “It’s good that the government takes some responsibility, but the government can’t do everything.”
While Pope Francis is fluent in several languages, English is not one he uses on a regular basis; yet everyone thought he did an admirable job in speaking slowly and pronouncing every word of his remarks.
“I think he did extraordinarily well,” Father Rita said. “It’s not easy trying to read another language when (the ideas) are in your own native language. And the pronunciation of English knows no rules, like Spanish and many of the romance languages do.”
“I had the experience of trying to learn another language later in life, and I think he did a great job,” Father Canuel concurred. “It’s difficult to not be able to express everything as comfortably and as precisely as you’d like. But knowing his background and listening to him express himself in English — and this late in life — is impressive.”
The pope also received high marks for his pointed and direct address before a joint session of Congress the following morning, which likewise drew several retired priests into the community viewing room.
Father Correia was thrilled to hear Pope Francis cite the accomplishments of four great Americans during the speech: Abraham Lincoln; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and — most importantly — two prominent Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
“I was so happy to hear him mention Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton,” Father Correia told The Anchor. “I think they are two fine examples of (American-Catholics) who have put their faith into action.”
And the Holy Father managed to bring both sides of the Congressional aisle to its feet with his mention of the “Golden Rule,” as quoted from Matthew 7:12.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the pope said. “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”
The thunderous applause emanating from the TV was matched by cheers of approval from within the confines of the Cardinal Medeiros Residence.
“I just think he’s a wonderful and good father to us all and he’s encouraging us to keep up the good work,” Father Rita said.