The Pope packed a lot of hugs, handshakes, blessings and political admonitions into a period of less than a week that took him to the halls of Washington power, the U.N. General Assembly and drew throngs of admirers to hear him celebrate Mass.
On the plane back to Rome, he gave reporters his first impression of Americans. The warmth he encountered in the United States surprised him, as well as the varying forms it took in the cities he visited.
“It was a beautiful thing and also different,” the Pope said through a translator of Italian. “Washington, the welcome was warm but more formal; New York was a bit exuberant; Philadelphia very demonstrative.”
The devoutness of Americans he encountered also touched him. “You could see the people pray, and this struck me a lot,” he said.
Francis started his visit with a greeting perhaps unprecedented for a foreign dignitary when he arrived from Cuba. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their families all went to meet him on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.
Then Francis became the first Pope to address Congress.
“Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” he told lawmakers in a speech that brought House Speaker John Boehner to tears. After his meeting with Francis, Boehner, who had talked of laying down the speaker’s gavel in coming months, quit his job posthaste.
While in Washington, Francis canonized someone for the first time on American soil, lifting Spanish missionary Junipero Serra into sainthood.
It delighted many Hispanic believers but irked many Native Americans who said that Serra and other missionaries of the 18th century belittled and killed many of their ancestors.
In New York, Francis stopped by the 9/11 memorial and admonished the world to never forget those who suffered and died there, and at the U.N. General Assembly, he set a moral tone that put people and the planet over money.
Think of the poor, he told the world’s leaders and diplomats. They have “sacred rights” to labor, land and lodging, he said. And stop harming the Earth. In an opinion piece, U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon pleaded with world leaders to listen to Francis on climate change.
And the love of money?
“In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged,” Francis said.
And he accused some powerful nations of abusing the United Nations to advance their own power agendas.
In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, Francis stood in front of Independence Hall and praised America’s tradition of religious freedom and immigration. But he warned that injustice can tear down a society.
Wherever Francis goes, a crowd is sure to gather. In the United States, he filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and in Philadelphia, the throngs poured onto the city’s main boulevard, Benjamin Franklin Boulevard. But he took the time to pass out hugs and touch faces that had tears streaming down them.
And in his Philadelphia Mass, he stressed the importance of kind “little gestures” that go a long way.
“They get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different,” Francis said. “They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children and siblings.”
He told the crowd to show affection and compassion for fellow human beings.
Also in Philadelphia, the Pope addressed the uncomfortable subject that has hung over the Catholic Church for years: sex abuse by clergy.
Francis met with five victims at a previously undisclosed, private moment. Afterward, he said that “God weeps” when a child is sexually abused.
And clergy who commit the abuse betray their holy calling, he told reporters on the papal plane en route back to Rome.
“We know the abuses are everywhere — in families, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the gyms. But when a priest abuses, it is very serious because the vocation of the priest is to make that boy, that girl grow toward the love of God, toward maturity and toward good. But instead of that, it squashed it,” the Pope said.
Bishops and other church leaders who cover for abusers are also culpable, he said.
But Francis also said that priests who commit abuse can receive God’s forgiveness, if they are truly open to letting it in.
The Pope also answered questions about Catholic Church divorce policy, saying that it was still not recognized by doctrine.
And he answered a question about whether the church should consider ordaining women as priests. “That cannot be done,” Francis said. “Not because women don’t have the capacity.” He cited theological reasons for the stance.
After landing in Rome early Monday, Francis tweeted gratitude to Americans.