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Local Catholics bring home lessons from pope's visit; critics call for more action

Pope Francis waves to crowds gathered in Philadelphia, which include a group of De Smet Jesuit High School students and faculty.
Courtesy of Kenneth Luecke, De Smet Jesuit High School
Pope Francis waves to crowds gathered in Philadelphia, which include a group of De Smet Jesuit High School students and faculty.

As St. Louisans who traveled to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit in Philadelphia last weekend return home, some said they were "awestruck" by an experience they described as "thrilling."

But not everyone was pleased with the pontiff's words, particularly around the issue of clergy sex abuse. 

For many who took the journey, being among the millions of faithful and other observers was a highlight of the trip. De Smet Jesuit High School theology teacher Tim Wilmes said the pope's joy was "infectious" among the crowd at the World Meeting of Families.

"Saturday was a really emotional day for all of us, the perfect culmination of him expressing that joy back, talking about how important families are and that sense of community," he said. "It was so nice because we had felt that on Thursday and Friday."

De Smet Jesuit High School junior Michael Arens (left) waits for Pope Francis to drive by a Philadelphia street along with other classmates.
Credit Courtesy of De Smet Jesuit High School, Twitter
De Smet Jesuit High School junior Michael Arens (left) waits for Pope Francisto drive by a Philadelphia street along with other classmates.

Junior Michael Arens said going to the conference on families was important to him because he had hoped to pray for his family, and in particular, an aunt who recently had surgery, in the pontiff's presence. He not only felt his faith deepened by seeing the pope, but also from the speakers at the conference, who challenged him to express love and mercy in his everyday life.

"Being able to open up and gain the understanding of what he's really calling us to do and step out of our comfort zone and help others to achieve the same goals in their lives, that was really important to me," Arens said. 

Gabe Jones, a community relations specialist for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, attended the World Meeting of Families as a volunteer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said he, too, was "awestruck" by meeting so many other faithful and "seeing Pope Francis' message of mercy and hope and family."

One homily in particular "deeply touched" Jones, he said.

"We can talk about what the church believes and talk about our doctrine and talk about faith, but until we go out and live it, until you go out and do it, it’s all just talk," he said. "That was really refreshing to hear. It's not just these abstract terms and ideas; the Catholic faith, it’s really about doing, being out there, being active and living it."

Author Alicia von Stamwitz of St. Louis, who has written extensively about Pope Francis, said the whole experience was "fabulous," but she was particularly struck by the pope's comments on immigrants. 

"He said he identified with them, and he said, 'I know how it must have been very hard for you to come here. Do not be ashamed of your traditions, do not be ashamed of who you are. I celebrate you, your gifts, the contributions you can make to this country,' and you could have heard a pin drop. People were very touched by that — I was touched by that; I'm an immigrant myself," she said. 

She loved moving among the crowds and asking people how far they had traveled and why they wanted to see the pontiff. 

"I can think of one Pakistani man who is an immigrant who has been here 20 years who said, 'You just know when he talks that he’s speaking the truth,'" von Stamwitz said. "He said, 'I can see it, I can hear it and I like that, so that’s why I'm here.'"

She was also struck by another group she encountered outside one of the first papal addresses in Philadelphia. While many in the crowd jostled and struggled to get inside Independence Hall, von Stamwitz said, this Spanish-speaking group, many of whom were likely recent immigrants, sat peacefully.  

St. Louis-based author Alicia von Stamwitz said she was moved by the reasons some people in the crowds came to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia.
Credit Courtesy of Alicia von Stamwitz, Twitter
St. Louis-based author Alicia von Stamwitz said she was moved by the reasons some people in the crowds came to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia.

"I said to them, 'Don’t you want to get inside?' And I was very touched to hear their response," she said. "They said, "We’re not here to see the pope. We’re here for the pope.' What they were saying was, 'We just feel so grateful for the way he supports us and understands us and speaks to us. We’re here to respect him, to honor him. We don’t need to get up close and touch him.' It was very moving to me. They were the most peaceful among the crowd."

Still, von Stamwitz said the pope did not touch on a few issues she had thought he might address, such as nontraditional families or same-sex marriage. Nor did he speak much about the challenges of racism, though she said he spoke about the "dignity of the human person."

While she had hoped he would talk about the role of women in the church, von Stamwitz said the pope reaffirmed that priestly ordination in the church is only for men. Still she said he celebrated women, particularly nuns and other women religious, a marked change from the last papacy, which launched an investigation into their activities.

Other observers took issue with some of the comments the pope did make. Von Stamwitz said the pontiff made a misstep in his comments early in his U.S. visit in which he praised American bishops for their "courage" in dealing with the clergy sex abuse scandal. 

Von Stamwitz said the pontiff later added lines "at the last minute" to a later speech in "which he spoke more forcefully to the ugliness of the abuse that's happened."

"He seemed very genuine when he said, 'My heart breaks and weeps when I think of what has happened,' and he specifically said this has been allowed to happen by prelates, priests and bishops," she said. "I think he corrected himself there, and I like that about this pope. I think he makes some mistakes but he’s willing to learn, willing to listen and willing to change and speak more forcibly when he’s made a mistake or omitted to say something important."

But for others, that correction was not enough. Father James Connell, a retired priest from Milwaukee who is part of the Catholic Whistleblowers group that advocates for victims and reform in the church, said the pope's initial words were very upsetting.

"It was surprising to me that he would speak that way," Connell said. "It was as if he had no understanding at all of the extent to which the bishops have been part of the problem, the way they have not dealt with removing abusive priests, not warning about abusive priests, the whole history that’s been there for years, and it was just oblivious to it."

That said, Connell praised Pope Francis for his later comments and his meeting with victims. But Connell said he needs to see more action. 

"Words have been said before by a lot of church leaders and the actions have been more limited," he said. He said while the pope established a Vatican tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up cases of abuse, it has not yet been set up. He also added that his group has submitted two cases against former St. Louis archbishops Cardinals Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke to the tribunal, but has not yet gotten a response.

"So this pope has spoken strongly about a tribunal to hold bishops accountable; we’ve responded to what the pope has brought forward," Connell said. "This is the direction he’s going, but now he needs to do it. He needs to actually put that together, he needs to announce how it’s operating, and cases need to be sent to the attention of that group and we need to see some real action. So we’re still short on action and that needs to be done, and maybe we’re headed that way, we can hope and pray."

That call to action was seconded by St. Louisan David Clohessy, who is the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He said the Pope erred in referring to the clergy sex abuse scandal as a "past tense problem" and "missed a real opportunity to prod American bishops to do more or in fact to mandate that they do more."

"The papal visit I'm sure has been a real boost to the morale and spirit of local Catholic officials, but we’ve got to move beyond this feel-good moment and take tangible steps now that follow up on the pope’s promises to really make a difference in the lives and safety of children," he said.