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“In the afterglow of #PopeFrancis’ Apostolic Visit to America, what are your thoughts on the #PopeInUS?” activist and theologian Peter Heltzel, who is also my systematic philosophy professor, optimistically asked Facebook friends one morning after the pope had returned to Rome. But recent disclosures had left some with an unpleasant aftertaste. “I’m struggling with this Kim Davis thing,” one friend responded. Another wrote, “Secret meeting with Kim Davis has removed all afterglow.” Such a shame! The week before, at New York’s 9/11 Memorial, Peter had posted a photo that seemed nothing short of miraculous. Pope Francis paused in his walk through a sea of clergy from multiple faiths, fixed on Peter’s face and exchanged a few words. For those who know Peter, the photo seemed to capture a moment of anointing for an outspoken prophet for New York’s poor people and an important white ally for seminarians who organize Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Though I am a passionate supporter of same-sex marriage, I love it that the pope visited Davis. To me, the most important thing about the papal visit was not the agenda he upheld, but the stance he held up. At the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23, the whole Roman Catholic Church was portrayed as an organization that has made and continues to make mistakes. “Saints are only human,” a voice proclaimed over the loudspeaker in a pre-Mass program that acknowledged the objections of Native Americans to the canonization of the first Hispanic saint. The Franciscan monk Junipero Serra founded nine missions in the 18th century, and tribes in California suffered gravely as Spaniards colonized their land. “All the church’s saints are sinners,” the voice said. “That is the point.”

Like a scene from Dante’s Purgatorio, massive crowds inched through security checkpoints. Gates opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 2 p.m., but Mass would not start until after 4 p.m. Children in Catholic-school uniforms held hands with their parents. A host of chatty young nuns tucked iPhones into the pockets of their steely gray habits. Everywhere there were church groups with people who spoke Spanish, wearing bright T-shirts advocating for immigration reform. In line, I heard that parishes with large numbers of undocumented immigrants received many tickets. No outside food or water or signs, statues, gifts or selfie sticks were permitted. Despite 10,000 folding chairs, most of us would have no choice but to stand. Once in my appointed place behind the last row of seats, I found myself in a community of fellow pilgrims, lottery winners from local parishes, nearby colleges and, like me, Catholic University alumnae. Admitted by chance, several told me they felt summoned by faith. Together we watched Papa Francesco censing the altar, and I thought, “Holy smokes. I could be the only Protestant here.”


I left the Catholic church 30 years ago, when I felt unwelcome as an unmarried single mother. Catholic University had offered little support. Now a seminarian seeking ordination as a Reformed Christian minister, this was the first time I had returned. Speaking only in Spanish, the pope delivered a homily that touched upon the damage native people suffered through the system of missions that Junipero Serra helped found. “The Church, the holy People of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters,” reads the English transcript. Yet the pope upheld Serra’s courage to move forward. “The holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into elites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure is the cause of so much apathy.” It was not an apology. On the other hand, Francis did not sweep violence under the rug. We must get over it, he seemed to say, because ignoring the damage we cause hurts everyone.

A flock of white-cassocked priests bearing wafers were released in our midst. An assistant who carried a yellow-and-white umbrella accompanied each. The missalette sternly warned against taking communion across denominational borders. I instant-messaged a denominational leader to find out the status of communion between Reformed churches such as mine and the Catholic church. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” he kindly replied. “Wish I were there.”

I turned to a Georgetown University undergrad standing next to me. Out of thousands of students who entered a lottery, she had received one of 80 tickets. As one of the few entrants who was a practicing Catholic, she felt her presence had a divine hand. “Rebecca, you study anthropology and history,” I said. “How do you feel about canonizing Junipero Serra?”

“For me, this is all so amazing,” Rebecca said. “I grew up in California. And I am a descendant of the Mescalero Apache tribe. I’ve visited many missions. I love the one in Carmel. In school all children study mission history. Everyone does a history project to build a model of mission. I cannot believe Junipero Serra is being sainted by Pope Francis and I am a witness.” I was stunned. As much as anyone present, Rebecca had a right to be angry with the holy father. Instead she was full of reverence. It occurred to me that perhaps the real power of the people’s pope is not to change the world with any particular agenda for its winners and losers. Instead this papal visit offered people such as me who felt hurt by the church a chance to lay down our anger and forgive. Not for the sake of those who perpetrate injustice and violence – Serra, for all the good he did and evil he allowed, is long dead. Rebecca helped me remember the grace of forgiveness for the living people who suffer harm.

So in the afterglow or aftermath, as we pick and choose from among the pope’s words and actions those that most represent our own points of view, the most important take-away may be the old sinner in the white cap who captured millions of our hearts and reminded us that like him, the church itself is only human.

Liz Estes is a master-of-divinity student at Union Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the Reformed Church in America’s Classis of New Brunswick.

Photo: Benhur Arcayan, Malacañang Photo Bureau; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.