Cardinal Justin Rigali, who concelebrated Mass with Holy Father, shares insight into historic U.S. papal visit
By Bill Brewer
If Cardinal Justin Rigali had only three words to describe Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, they would be “magnificent,” “challenge,” and “encounter.”
The pope encountered large crowds of faithful on each leg of his U.S. trip, where he engaged them with genuine interest, compassion, love, and humility, creating waves of positive reaction across the country from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“It was a magnificent encounter with the people of the United States. It also was a magnificent encounter with people of other faiths,” Cardinal Rigali said. “I would say it was a great encounter and a profound proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The cardinal, who resides in the Diocese of Knoxville, used the word “challenge” to describe what the Holy Father did at every stop along his way.
“His key message was challenge. Nobody escaped being challenged by the pope, whether Congress, the United Nations, the Catholic community, the larger Christian community, and the community at large,” he said of the historic visit.
The Holy Father reached out to many communities during his six-day visit to the United States, including Congress in a joint session, the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. cardinals and bishops, a Catholic school in Harlem, a prison in Philadelphia, and the World Meeting of Families, which attracted people from around the globe to Philadelphia.
There were also many stops along the way to engage with people lining the streets to see him.
Whether encouraging Congress to resolve its infighting and continue working to help the world, urging the United Nations to keep the dignity and sacredness of every human life and the value of all creatures at the center of its concern, or telling World Meeting of Families attendees that it’s “worth being a family,” Pope Francis stayed true to his message of protecting the world’s sustainability that he outlined in his encyclical Laudato Si.
Just like the Church and its 1.25 billion members worldwide, Pope Francis’ message was universal, even if delivered in many ways to many groups, Cardinal Rigali said.
“Each group is different and has its own need for a relevant message,” the cardinal said. “The pope is pastor of the universal Church and proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its aspects. There was great concentration on the dignity of the human person and the need to follow the commandments to love and serve one another. He extended his message to the whole universe, discussing the environment and climate.”
Despite efforts by political and interest groups to capture the pontiff’s words for their own ends, Cardinal Rigali said the papal message does not apply to any one political party or interest group. It applies to everyone.
“He [Pope Francis] was constantly saying we need to work together,” said Cardinal Rigali, who as a member of the College of Cardinals was in the conclave that elected Pope Francis in March 2013.
Cardinal Rigali’s vantage point during the Holy Father’s historic trip was up close and personal. He was at the White House on Sept. 23, where President Barack Obama held a welcoming ceremony for the pope. He also was at a prayer service that day, where the pontiff greeted U.S. cardinals and bishops, and then he concelebrated the canonization Mass for Junipero Serra with Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Cardinal Rigali then traveled to Philadelphia, where he again concelebrated
Mass with the pope Sept. 26 at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.
According to Cardinal Rigali, the pope’s message is not new. It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ being proclaimed by the newest successor of Peter.
The pope’s popularity was apparent everywhere he went, which prompted recollections — not comparisons — of past popes by Cardinal Rigali.
In more than 50 years of priestly service, Cardinal Rigali has directly served Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and St. John Paul II, traveling with Paul VI and John Paul II on many of their papal trips. He was with John Paul II when the pope went to the United Nations and Washington, D.C., in October 1979. He was with John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the lawn of the White House.
Cardinal Rigali vividly recalls the popularity the popes enjoyed on their visits to the United States.
He sees the same effect with Pope Francis, although he is quick to acknowledge the “Francis Effect,” the immense popularity of the Holy Father in all communities and the Holy Father’s “charismatic gifts.”
“Coming as pope gives him charism. Great attention has been accorded each pope who has visited the United States. Pope Francis benefits at this particular moment,” Cardinal Rigali said.
“A great deal of the popularity is because he is pope. He tries to exercise the papacy in a very effective way. He embraces children, people who are sick and in need. It’s a beautiful thing,” he added.
Calling St. John Paul II’s U.S. visit in 1979 an “extraordinary thing,” the cardinal said there always is a great attraction to see and hear what the bishop of Rome has to say, which always is a message of salvation.
“There is only one message the Church has. It’s the Gospel proclamation. Jesus Christ died for us. God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son. There are so many important aspects of the application of this message: peace, love, the needs of human beings. These vary, but the message doesn’t vary,” he said.
Like his predecessor John Paul II, Francis demonstrates a special rapport with children. His U.S. visit was highlighted by images of the pontiff encountering youth, whether kissing babies along the papal route, interacting with schoolchildren, or waving to Diocese of Knoxville high school students standing along the road in Philadelphia hoping to get a glimpse of the Holy Father.
Another element of the “Francis Effect” was the pope’s efforts to communicate in English while in the United States, something that is foreign to the Holy Father but resonated with Catholic and non-Catholics of all ages. His native language is Spanish, but he also speaks Italian, some Portuguese and German. The fact he is the first pope elected outside of Europe adds to his popularity in the Americas.
Cardinal Rigali pointed out that Pope Francis’ U.S. visit was similar in content and proclamation of the Gospel, noting that there was absolute continuity in Catholic doctrine. The Gospel proclamation reflects similarities and differences in pontiffs.
“Differences in personalities are important, but the popes are all teaching the same as Peter taught,” the cardinal noted.
Cardinal Rigali was impressed by the World Meeting of Families, saying it was a “beautiful experience.”
He especially was moved by the Sept. 26 evening event where several people gave their personal testimony.
“There was great joy,” Cardinal Rigali noted. “Pope Francis has been teaching the joy of the Gospel — his Evangelii Gaudium — reminiscent of Pope Paul VI in 1975 with the proclamation of the Gospel, the announcement of the Gospel, the joy of the Gospel. Both emphasized the joy of the Gospel. It’s beautiful to see continuity and a freshness of approach.”
And the cardinal said he was privileged to concelebrate two Masses with the Holy Father in Philadelphia, seeing firsthand the power of the pontiff’s individuality in proclaiming the message that comes from Christ.
What was seen at the altar by Cardinal Rigali was witnessed by tens of thousands of people attending the weeklong World Meeting of Families and the weekend Masses as well as those seeing the pope in New York and Washington and in television coverage across the country.
The pope’s appeal is infectious.
“There certainly is a Francis Effect, absolutely,” Cardinal Rigali said. “The charism of this pope is admired by so many people and has attracted so many people. The acceptance of his particular gifts in proclaiming the Gospel has made him and his personal gifts so alluring. It’s an attraction people have to this pope —and it’s real.”
Cardinal Rigali reminds the faithful that Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II also carried that public appeal.
Another factor in Pope Francis’ widespread popularity is social media, according to Cardinal Rigali.
The pontiff has benefited from advancements in communications similar to how past popes have benefited from newspapers, radio, film and television.
In public, and in private audiences, the Holy Father is constantly facing smartphone cameras capturing images of him that are instantaneously posted to social media. The pope appears receptive to the citizen paparazzi.
Cardinal Rigali, who took part in Vatican II as a young priest, noted that the second document adopted by the Second Vatican Council was on communications.
“It’s an extremely important issue. It was primitive in regard to what is happening now. Vatican II realized the importance,” the cardinal said.
“Pope Francis is singularly blessed to have social media that no other pope in the history of the world has had.
“It’s a magnificent blessing God has given to the modern world. The instruments of communications have an effect, and they make it possible for the Francis Effect.”