Bishop Edward Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville described the Holy Father — Pope Francis — as “gracious, personable, warm and kind.”
“He has an almost home-spun manner,” Braxton said in an interview after returning from events where the pope appeared in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. “He’s not particularly formal. He speaks off the cuff. He doesn’t measure his words in a highly diplomatic way that one ordinarily expects someone in his position to do.”
Braxton attended several of the events last week. “It was an extraordinary opportunity,” he said Monday from his Belleville residence.
At the invitation of U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, Braxton was seated inside the gallery of the Capitol during the first-ever address by a pope to a joint session of Congress on Thursday.
“A local congressman very generously invited me,” said Braxton, who met Bost for the first time that day.
The pope delivered his address in English, which isn’t his first, second or third language. “... He read it slowly and deliberately,” Braxton said of Pope Francis.
Braxton said he was impressed with the “scope and depth” of the pope’s address, and the reaction it got from Congress. Braxton said he was seated next to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is running for president as a Republican.
“I was in the gallery looking down at the Holy Father’s address, which I think many people were surprised by the fact that instead of starting out by quoting scripture or church doctrine or papal doctrine, he started out quoting American doctrine: ‘this is the land of the free; the home of the brave,’” Braxton said.
He described the pope’s address to Congress in one word: brilliant.
“Our Holy Father, Pope Francis — like all the popes and all the bishops — are not liberal or conservative,” Braxton said. “We try to speak about the Gospel.”
He said Francis spoke from his heart and invited those listening to a “conversation to work together to address very challenging issues by which people don’t agree.”
Last Wednesday, Braxton was in attendance at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington for the pope’s prayer service with the U.S. bishops. When the pope spoke to the bishops, he had just come from his visit with a small group of victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy.
“He began off the cuff ... by commenting that he had just come from this meeting, and we are very sadden by what had happened, and we told them we believe them and God weeps for their suffering,” Braxton said.
Braxton also attended the outdoor Mass where the pope canonized Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Following the canonization Mass, the pope made an unscheduled visit to the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is in a legal battle over the Affordable Care Act. “He (the pope) didn’t speak about the Affordable Care Act,” Braxton said. “He didn’t say one word over the legal issue they lost over insurance and the questions of the Affordable Care Act dealing with issues of contraception.”
Pope Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope to hail from Argentina, is known for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to interfaith dialogue. During his visit to the U.S., he met with representatives of other churches from around the world. He is known for having a humble approach to the papacy, even choosing to live in the guesthouse at the Vatican rather than the Apostolic Palace.
Pope Francis is a “man of words and gestures. He’s a man of symbols,” Braxton said. “In some ways, he’s more powerful in his symbols than in his words, especially when he shows such love for children.”
In some ways, he’s more powerful in his symbols than in his words, especially when he shows such love for children.
Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton on Pope Francis
From Washington, Braxton took a train to Philadelphia to participate in the “World Meeting of Families.” He said he watched the pope’s events in New York City on television.
“You couldn’t do it all, because some things overlapped,” Braxton said.
The World Meeting of Families is the reason the pope came to the United States, Braxton said, since Pope Benedict XVI had said he would attend. Pope Francis spoke Saturday afternoon from the historic lectern where President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. In his speech, Braxton said the pope reflected on immigration and civil liberties.
Braxton attended the Festival of Families on Saturday evening, which the pope attended as well. The pope’s closing Mass at the World Meeting of Families on Sunday had a massive attendance of between 800,000 and 1.2 million people. “It was incredible,” Braxton said.
The impact can only happen if priests and bishops and sisters and deacons and parents take the time to distill it and think about it.
Bishop Edward Braxton on the impact of the pope’s visit
The next World Meeting of Families will be held in Dublin, Ireland, in 2018.
Many people outside the church are intrigued by Pope Francis, according to Braxton.
“He does convey that we bring the love of God to everyone,” he said of the pope. “He’s creating a tone of hospitality. He uses the metaphor the church can be like a field hospital; it’s there to nurse the wounds of those who have been wounded.”
Q. What struck you the most about the pope’s visit?
A. “There’s truly so many things. ... At the Festival of Families on Saturday evening, all of these families from all over the world, from the Ukraine, from the United States, from Argentina, from Nigeria, speaking about the joys and sorrows in their families, he embraced each one of them and talked to them individually. It was profoundly moving. He listened with such intent.
“Earlier when he was listening to music and a little boy sang — Pie Jesu — it was beautiful the way he went up to this little boy and just embraced him.
“Or to see him as Aretha Franklin was singing her wonderful rendering of ‘Amazing Grace’ as only Aretha Franklin could sing it. She doesn’t just sing it; she sings it. To see him really there; he wasn’t up and dancing, but he was truly engaged by the First Lady of Soul. ... To be present for a pope canonizing a saint for the first time ever in the United States was a great moment.”
Q. What impact will the pope’s visit to the United States have on Catholicism here?
A. “No question, some individuals’ lives are touched deeply and changed. There’s no question about that. After every papal visit, there’s some people that say that ‘I really renewed my faith, reclaimed my faith.’ Some people are touched very, very deeply. Many, most probably not, but some, some in the country. For others, seeds are planted.
“Like his address to Congress, suddenly the Republicans and the Democrats are not going to be like the lion and the lamb and lie down together and make peace. If they disagree and have ideological differences, it’s still going to be a struggle to determine what the budget is going to be, whether or not they’re going to finance the government or close down the government because of differences or issues such as the controversy about Planned Parenthood. ...
“Those things are not changed by a visit, but hearts are touched, seeds are planted and maybe over time they have an impact. ... Another way in which the pope’s visit has an impact is that when he speaks, he speaks from texts. This is important, because the Catholic tradition is one of texts. Colleges and schools and universities and people in government read those texts next year and the year after that and 10 years from now. They continue to have an impact. ... The impact of the Holy Father’s visit can’t be measured in a week or a month or year; it’s a gradual thing over time.”
Q. Do you have a renewed focus personally moving forward?
A. “I don’t know that I do. As a bishop, I have always been close to the popes. I have met Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI; I have met Francis ... I have always had great spiritual strength from knowing that I’m a member of a community of faith that is linked to Christ through Peter.
“Obviously being with my brother bishops and priests and sisters and deacons from around the world and being close to the Holy Father for a whole week is a great spiritual experience of support. It doesn’t produce the kind of excitement of someone who has never seen a pope before.
“I think for me it’s more of a steady reality of an enthusiasm that is born of a life of the church, born of a life of priesthood. ...”