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St. Louisans hope Pope Francis talks about the poor and policy during U.S. visit

File photo of Pope Francis
Flickr | Christus Vincit
Pope Francis will arrive in Philadelphia on Saturday, following visits to New York and Washington, D.C., where he will speak at the World Meeting of Families and give a Papal Mass.

Dozens of St. Louis Catholics are headed to Philadelphia this week to see Pope Francis, who arrived in the U.S. Tuesday, and they bring with them a wide variety of expectations.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis as well as De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis have organized two groups to make the trip to see the pontiff in Philadelphia, as well as attend the World Meeting of Families, a faith-based conference on issues related to strengthening and supporting families. In addition to his visits to Washington, D.C., and New York this week, the pope will also speak at this meeting and give a papal Mass in Philadelphia.

A group of De Smet Jesuit High School teachers and students will go to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia. Front row: Sean Higgins, Michael Dunn, Connor Blair, Ken Luecke; Back row:  Michael Arens, Jack Gerbic, Tim Wilmes, Mike Callahan
Credit Courtesy De Smet Jesuit High School
A group of De Smet Jesuit High School teachers and students will go to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia. Front row: Sean Higgins, Michael Dunn, Connor Blair, Ken Luecke; Back row: Michael Arens, Jack Gerbic, Tim Wilmes, Mike Callahan

Still other Catholics are making the pilgrimage on their own. Alicia von Stamwitz, author of two books on Pope Francis' words called The Spirit of Saint Francis and The Blessing of the Family, will be making the trip. 

According to von Stamwitz, the role of families has been a central concern of the pope's since the beginning of his papacy, and she said she expects him to speak to U.S. lawmakers and policymakers about  finding ways to better support and strengthen families, especially those who are poor.

"He said, 'We have to talk about the family, especially families who are struggling because of war, because of immigration and migration — we all have refugees on our mind — or other ways society alienates poor families so he’s especially concerned about families that are struggling," she said. "He loves to tell families, 'You are the heartbeat of society.'"

What St. Louis Catholics hope to hear

But many other St. Louis Catholics hope to hear the pontiff speak about other themes as well.

Marilyn Price, a St. Louis Catholic who serves as parish nurse Our Lady of Providence in Crestwood, is going to Philadelphia with the Archdiocese group. She said she hopes the pope speaks about the importance of serving the poor and the need for mercy.

"I do mission trips down to Honduras where we do community development in one small village, and listening to him, he not only tells us what he thinks we should do, but he actually lives it," she said.

That message also resonates with Nancy Rice, a longtime member of St. Roch Catholic Church in the city's Skinker-Debaliviere neighborhood. Though she's not going to see Francis in person, she hopes he makes the poor a focus in his public addresses.

"I think about the kindness that he shows to the sick and to the homeless, and when I hear about him sneaking out of the Vatican at night to deliver bologna sandwiches to the homeless guys, it just makes me wish I was 18 so I could be out doing the same thing," she said. "This guy is physically showing people how to live and I'm just really grateful to him for that."

Still other Catholics hope to hear Pope Francis' signature calls to love others. Self-described "real Pope Francis fan" Diana Dahl, a registered nurse from Webster Groves and a member of Holy Redeemer Parish, said she wants to hear the pontiff speak in person about "love and peace and encouragement and acceptance."

Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square in May 2013
Credit Wikipedia
Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square in May 2013

"He exemplifies love and I just want to be in his presence," she said. "I don’t know if I’ll be close, but I'll be in his presence. I want to hear that message in person." 

For her part, author von Stamwitz said she hopes the pope speaks about immigration, the role of women in the church and race relations.

"In St. Louis, we all think about policing and race relations - I hope he touches on that when he's in New York," she said. "I think we want to hear that message he often brings of hope. We know it's going to require change on our part, but we all want to see a better day tomorrow and I think he's going to speak to that, what we can do to turn things around."

Author Alicia von Stamwitz discusses Pope Francis' personality and message in our extended interview.

But von Stamwitz said it's not just what Francis says, but how he says it. She said Francis is known for preaching "unadorned Gospel" without "layers of doctrine and dogma in what he says." But she also notes he has a sense of humor and is "a bit of a poet" in his use of metaphors. Often, she said, his most interesting comments are made off-the-cuff. This style suits the sometimes difficult messages he delivers, she said.

"He does not pull punches, is not afraid to make people angry or upset. In fact, I think he likes being what some people call a disrupter. He is both an intellectual and a rabble rouser in the positive sense of trying to be sure that the kingdom of God is going to be experienced by the people on the margins and are most far away from whatever benefits our society provides," she said.

That willingness to confront difficult topics is a hallmark of Jesuit theology, said De Smet theology teacher and campus minister Tim Wilmes. He said as the first Jesuit pope, Francis provides a "perfect example" for  his students in how to live Ignatian ideals in the real world.

"As an Ignatian educator, we ask the guys to really think critically about the world around them and not to shy away from difficult issues -- and Pope Francis certainly has not done that, as most people know -- but also that idea of love and compassion and looking through that lens of love," he said. "It’s exciting for me as an educator, a young educator, to see these guys be in that presence and take some of their own ideas away: What does that mean for me as a Catholic in a Jesuit school in the city? How do I see what the pope is doing in my own life?"

De Smet Jesuit High School junior Michael Ahrens and theology teacher Tim Wilmes are going to see Pope Francis speak in person.
Credit Courtesy De Smet Jesuit High School
De Smet Jesuit High School junior Michael Ahrens and theology teacher Tim Wilmes are going to see Pope Francis speak in person.

St. Louis Public Radio's Stephanie Lecci interviews De Smet Jesuit High School theology teacher Tim Wilmes and junior Michael Arens about their trip to see Pope Francis.

De Smet junior Michael Arens, 17, of O'Fallon, said he feels a personal connection with the pope because of the pontiff's prolific use of social media.

"He urges us to get involved in our faith and be men and women for others, because we will be the future of the church eventually, and without that foundation, there’s not going to be a lot to stand off of," Arens said.

Arens said he hopes seeing the pope in person will help him to become a model in faith for his friends.

"It’ll just kind of get me to grow deeper in my faith, from hearing what he has to say and teach about, seeing what he has to do by his humbleness," he said. "We pray every day, we dedicate our thoughts, words and actions to the greater glory of God, and just to really reflect on that throughout the day. You know, have I really done that or just kind of been like, 'Eh?'"

Universal appeal

Francis' message is so accessible, in part, because of his "down-to-earth" background, von Stamwitz said.

"He came from a family of migrants, was middle class, had a large family. He grew up working, he had a woman who was a boss, which is unusual to have a pope with that background, so some of the basic life experiences he’s had has made him even more accessible," she said.

That's made him an appealing figure to even non-Catholics, said Dahl of Webster Groves.

"I have a lot of friends who aren't Catholic, and they're like, 'I like this pope,'" Dahl said. "What I observe is people are much more open to Catholicism and to the pope and to hearing about what we think and we feel and how we believe than they ever have been before. And that just makes my heart sing."

John Harris, a retired teacher from St. Louis, said he is not Catholic, but he has long been interested in Vatican politics. He said he is an admirer of the pope because of his "tremendously effective political acumen," including his role in the normalization of relations with Cuba and position on nuclear disarmament.

"He's walked the walk, it's not all talk," Harris said, "a soft touch, but awfully effective."

Harris said he is particularly impressed with Francis' message on climate change.

"I think it's tremendously intriguing that a pope is trying to influence matters that involve scientific expertise, and he does have the background for this," he said. "I think he's going to say that we have a moral responsibility from his point of view with spiritual dimensions to protect the future of the planet, if we really cherish our children and grandchildren and nature itself."

Jamieson Spencer, a self-described "not-practicing Episcopalian" from Des Peres, said he, too, likes Francis' views on the environment as well as his recent messages on divorce, abortion, capitalism and world politics.

"He'll have an intelligent and sensible message to give all of us. He speaks kind of common sense, merciful, sensible attitudes toward the human animal," he said. "Sometimes we get a little uptight about our sins. Perhaps we should be a little more forgiving and understanding of human fallibility and perhaps not use doctrine to judge people and perhaps use our hearts and our common brotherhood and sisterhood."

But if he had the chance to ask the pontiff one question, Spencer said it would be: "Is there any chance that the Anglican and Catholic communions might join some day in a common theological practice?"

The Anglican Church, which in the U.S. is the Episcopal Church, split from the Catholic Church centuries ago, but Spencer said if both get away from "petty" doctrinal differences, such as the belief in virgin birth, "we have a lot more in common, particularly concerning the condition of the earth and how we can all work to make it a better planet and welcome all people who are not perfect people into a trusting, tolerant brotherhood and sisterhood."

Francis may even be bringing some disillusioned Catholics back to the Church, said Rice of St. Roch. His sense of humility, she said, contrasts with the concern for "pomp and circumstance" that other church leaders, such as St. Louis' former archbishop Cardinal Burke embraced.

"I think he has reinvigorated many Catholics that I have known and grown up with because he has told us, in words of one syllable, that we have to look at the needs of the poor and that that is our job," she said. "That has historically been the message of the church that maybe got a little lost in the last decade or so. He is putting that back front and center."

Von Stamwitz agrees, saying many Catholics have felt "jaded or cynical."

Author Alicia von Stamwitz has written two books on the words of Pope Francis.
Credit Courtesy of Alicia von Stamwitz
Author Alicia von Stamwitz has written two books on the words of Pope Francis.

"What I hope to take away personally is this is a new day, this guy is very different and we could make a fresh start, not just at the level of society or at churches but also in our own life," she said. "If we’re beginning to feel kind of dead or lifeless spiritually, if you listen to this pope’s words closely, he’s very much an optimist, and you can hear that he has a sense of hope and promise for the future that I think is infectious and will get a lot of people lit up."

That appeal may also help keep younger Catholics in the fold, teacher Wilmes said, by encouraging young people to "reach out, be active and be present in the world."

"For us we’re asking questions about our faith, how it fits into our daily lives, and I think what he’s doing is inspirational and appealing for a lot of young people," he said.

Recalling previous encounters with popes

Pope Francis' U.S. trip is also bringing back memories of other papal visits for some local Catholics.

Price, the parish nurse, said she saw Pope John Paul II when he came to St. Louis in 1999. She described the experience as "exhilarating," and noted that John Paul developed the idea behind the World Meeting of Families that Pope Francis will visit while in the U.S.

"I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I had deep admiration for him," she said. "I just remember the holiness of the Mass was unparalleled. It was just so blessed. The music, too, which was just ... I don't think that I've ever come that close since then to that level of music."

Teacher Wilmes said he also remembers John Paul's visit, but he was only in first grade and too young to know what was really happening.

"But I knew it was important," he said. "I could tell the city changed in the way it went around its day-to-day business. Any community member at that time could feel that, and I hope to catch a little bit of that spirit when we’re hanging out (in Philadelphia) … talking with the people ... I hope we ourselves are changed in little ways that we might not even notice but that we can bring back here in the classroom, with friends or family or in the ministry we do, going and making a conscious effort to make a connection with the community around us."

Pope Benedict visited New York in April 2008.
Credit File photo
Pope Benedict visited New York in April 2008.

Being among so many faithful is what Wilmes is looking forward to most about the pilgrimage to Philadelphia, and it's what Diana Dahl called the "spiritual gift" she received when she saw Francis' predecessor Pope Benedict speak in New York.

"Being with that many people, it's just so powerful, and I want that again," she said.

But she expects the experience of seeing Pope Francis will be different, noting differences in their styles.

"Francis is just so down to earth. His style of touching people and going over what used to be the rules of the Catholic Church and redefining those, not going against any of our tenets and doctrines, but just refining how you treat people with love, no matter what the differences," she said.

She said that is how the Catholic Church needs to present itself in the world today to make a difference, something she said Francis has already started to do.

This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the Network and how you can become a source, please click here.