United States - Visit by Pope Francis to the USA - an inivitation

Hope began to kindle in our hearts from the moment we learned that Pope Francis was coming to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families: perhaps we would get to see "the People’s Pope" in our own neighborhood. We initiated contact with Pope Francis on the first anniversary of his pontificate in the Spring of 2014 with two letters of invitation: one by our LSA Family Health Service in East Harlem along with a cover letter from the Little Sisters. When the announcement was made from Rome that in his journey to the USA Pope Francis was going to visit 3 cities on the East Coast: Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia respectively, an excitement was in the air! 
 
Thinking that he would land at a nearby NYC Airport, in December 2014, we decided to invite him ‘to simply ride by our Center in East Harlem’ so we could welcome him. Surely he could take a little detour ‘around the corner’! We agreed to write letters to Pope Francis and offered the opportunity to our parent groups, the staff and anyone who wanted to join us. The children’s tutoring group, coordinated by Martha Andrade, was provided with supplies to enhance their creativity. 
 
At the same time we met with Maryalice Spencer, Coordinator of our LSA Family in Mission, who shared our enthusiasm. She contacted the LSA communities who asked their family and friends to join in the letter writing campaign to Pope Francis. Each envelope and letter had the same label sure to be noticed by someone at the Vatican! We even included Maryalice’s cell phone number knowing that he was known to make surprise calls and she was more than ready to converse in her best Spanish. There was such excitement! 
 
The story received from the Mother House telling of our connection to Pope Francis with the Little Sisters in Argentina was circulated in English and Spanish. We wanted everyone to know that Pope Francis was a friend of the Little Sisters and the people among whom they lived. Friends going to the Vatican offered to hand-deliver some of our letters. In the end, 295 letters were sent to Pope Francis! We never received any personal acknowledgement of our letters but somehow we always believed he would come. 
 
AN UNEXPECTED PERSONAL DETOUR 
 
In the meantime, I surprisingly landed in the hospital faced with emergency surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. This was followed by months of rehabilitation which separated me from the ongoing hopeful planning for the Pope’s visit. After several weeks of tremendous struggle to get some re-orientation to my own reality, I came upon a small booklet called “30 days with Pope Francis” which I began to use for my daily prayer. It included a brief phrase written by Pope Francis followed by a scripture quote and a few words of reflection. I read this many times a day as I couldn’t easily remember what I read. I begged Pope Francis to help me recover quickly. I was also praying to Fr. Pernet, Antoinette Fage, Fr. Pio and Fr. Solanus. I slowly became more mentally alert and physically stronger. Very often I felt I was ‘walking’ with Pope Francis, which gave me the determination to work as hard as I could in recovery hoping that I would be home for this wonderful visit.
 
PREPARATION FOR THE POPE’S VISIT 
 
When I came home 5 months later, the Pope’s plan for seeing East Harlem had become more definite. Pope Francis requested to visit a school where they were responding to the immigrant population which is why Our Lady Queen of Angels school, located within a couple streets from us, was chosen. We saw this as an incredible opportunity for many of our families whose children are attending Queen of Angels school; they would become ‘visible’ and to meet Pope Francis would show them that they matter. Moreover, we have many women studying English as a Second Language at the Comunidad Juan Diego Program housed at this school and Sr. Deysi Martinez LSA, who is from Chile and living in East Harlem also studied there. 
 
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York invited us to have one of our immigrant families represent LSA Family Health Service and its work in the community. Much to my surprise, I was asked if I would be willing to introduce the Garcia family to the Pope on September 25th! I don’t have to tell you what I said – I was so happy! The Garcia Family has been a recipient of services from our center for over 10 years. The mothers from our Parenting and Child Development Program were also in the process of making 225 beautiful paper flowers which would be displayed at the school as centerpieces for the tables at the reception. The flowers are in the Mexican folk art tradition and represent the vibrancy of the largely immigrant population served by the Agency. 
 
The people in the community were electrified; that is the only way to describe it. TV cameras followed the LSA Family Health Service activities around for the month. Pope Francis’ gentle, kind and approachable manner, his sense of deep holiness and mercy conveyed to all, his genuine concern for each one as a person loved by God was experienced across all styles of life, all types of families and all those who experience struggles that threaten life: those who are homeless, those who are economically poor, and those who are forgotten. 
 
The greatest desire of the East Harlem Community was to be blessed by the Pope, and to bring before him their concerns, needs for health, work, and to be accepted by the department of Immigration in the process of becoming legal citizens. 
(Susanne Lachapelle, LSA)
 
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS 
 
“I was in the Cathedral in New York that first evening when Pope Francis spoke to a packed Cathedral filled with laity, religious, priests, politicians, people from every economic strata. I was also in the crowded street that welcomed him with warmth, gusto, excitement in both the City of New York and in East Harlem. It was thrilling to see the multitude and diversity of Americans who lined the streets; Pope Francis connected with each of them, their hearts and spirits. He spoke, with word and action, a message of love, compassion, justice. He portrayed a renewed face of CHURCH to so many who have been discouraged and moved away from the institutional Church. It was such a gift to have him among us and to hear his emphasis upon the USA as being a nation of immigrants. I remembered with gratitude our Sisters in Argentina who cared for him and his family early on in his life.” (Margaret Leonard, LSA)
 
“We thank God and the Little Sisters for the incredible opportunity see Pope Francis at so close a view at Madison Square Garden for Mass. We felt an emotion that we cannot describe. To see him come in and smile, to listen to his messages and teachings on love and fraternity gave us hope that we can do something better for our world. To see Our Lady of Guadalupe next to him at the Altar reaffirmed that Pope Francis is with the community, the poor and the less fortunate. This experience was beyond words!” (Norma Flores and her 80 year old mother, Emelia Sanchez, who was visiting her from Mexico) 
 
The mothers from our Parent Group at the Center shared the following thoughts regarding the Pope’s visit: “He is a man filled with hope and that gives us hope. I had such deep emotion I can’t even find the words to express it. He represents God and has come to do God’s work. He reminds us that God is present in our every moment. I experienced much joy. The Pope freely and consistently speaks the word of God. He is very important for us as immigrants and for families, and talked to us about immigration with respect and love. It was so meaningful that he was close to us. He spoke to us about a deep faith and he recognized it in us. His coming was a blessing. I felt peace and a great silence.” 
 
 
A FEW EXCERPTS ALONG THE WAY 
 
Sept 23: Meeting with U.S. Bishops at St Mathew the Apostle, Washington DC 
The temptation in these challenging times, Francis said is, “to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition. And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly …. out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the market place, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love." (cf. Mt 20: 1-16)
 
Sept. 24: Both Houses of Congress 
 
"Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’." (Mt 7:12).
 
Sept. 24: Vespers – St Patrick’s Cathedral, New-York City 
To American religious: “What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you,’ a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much.”
 
Sept. 25: Ground Zero, New York City 
In front of one of the last remnants of the World Trade Center and after praying alongside those of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, Pope Francis said he hoped their presence together at a place of such destruction would be a sign that peace is truly possible. He movingly called for families of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks to honor those killed by becoming instruments of peace and reconciliation. 
Sept. 25: United Nations General Assembly 
"The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.” In introducing the pope to the U.N. body, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, ‘Your Holiness, welcome to the pulpit of the world. We are here to listen’." 
 
Sept. 25 – East Harlem School 
Very near here is a very important street named after a man who did a lot for other people. I want to talk a little bit about him. He was the Reverend Martin Luther King. One day he said, “I have a dream”. His dream was that many children, many people could have equal opportunities. His dream was that many children like you could get an education. It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them. 
 
Sept.27 – Visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia
“Let us look to Jesus, who washes our feet. He is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’. He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change. He helps us to journey along the paths of life and fulfillment. May the power of his love and his resurrection always be a path leading you to new life.”
 
In conclusion, the visit of Pope Francis continues to be a time of grace for this country and for each one of us. His gentle, compassionate and thought-provoking manner is certainly one that impels us to look at our way of being with one another. It is a disarming, loving stance towards all of life - something for which to strive. Let us keep Pope Francis in our prayers along with the intimate hopes of the families we serve.
 
 
Mass at Madison Square Garden :
Norma and her mother Emilia, Avelina, Maryalice, Annette
25/01/2016
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