Catholics hope to build on pope's U.S. visit

As Pope Francis prepares to leave the United States on Sunday, a teacher in Towson is giving her students a new assignment.

Joan Carlson, campus minister at Notre Dame Preparatory School, wants her seniors to study and write about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., monk Thomas Merton and poverty worker Dorothy Day.


Francis mentioned the four "great Americans" last week during his historic address before Congress.

"If we're going to deepen our understanding of what it means to be Catholic — to be Christian — to be human," Carlson says, "we need to learn what people like this were all about."


Across the region, Catholic leaders, educators and others are trying to harness the energy and goodwill generated by the pope, to build on his visit and make its impact last.

Dozens of houses of worship this weekend are hosting speakers on climate change. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori has invited the public to harvest produce for the poor at a farm in Baltimore County.

Catholic Charities of Baltimore hopes to use the visit to attract more donors and volunteers to its 80 Baltimore service programs and to create more. And educators such as Carlson are creating opportunities for students to investigate issues discussed by the pope — or simply to learn to emulate the grace, simplicity and concern for others they say he has displayed during his visit.

"I'm hoping the excitement buzzing through [our student body] stays long after he leaves," Carlson says. "I'm hoping it is so settled in their hearts that it will stay. That really is the prayer right now."

Francis' visit to the United States, the first by a pope in seven years, was historic in several ways. In Washington on Wednesday, he performed the first canonization on American soil, elevating 18th-century Spanish friar Junipero Serra to sainthood.

Francis also became the first pontiff to address Congress, and his extensive use of Spanish — his native language, and that of the fastest-growing segment of the Catholic Church in the United States — set another precedent.

Even before his American admirers had a chance to begin follow-up activities, he had a profound personal impact on many who encountered him, whether in person or through the news media.

One was the leader of the half-million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the nation's oldest.


"The pope has this way about him that is so authentic," Lori says. "His own life of prayer and intimacy with the Lord shine through, and people pick up on that. He connects with people in a tremendous way, especially the young."

These traits have helped Francis persuade the church to look outward, Lori says, to "come together in unity, to open its heart to Christ and out to the culture."

That was a theme Wednesday of the papal Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where the pope spoke of what he said was the human tendency to become apathetic. He called on his listeners to reach out across social boundaries to those who are vulnerable or living at the margins.

An hour before the service, Mary Beth Lennon of Baltimore stood in brilliant sunshine and called the pope's manner more than enough to create a bond with modern Catholics.

She glanced at the elaborate Byzantine-Romanesque cathedral several hundred feet away.

"People see the majesty of the papacy, the pomp and circumstance, and that is impressive, but we're called to do the work of the church, and that's what this pope is about," said Lennon, president of Mercy High School in Baltimore. "He's about to commission 30,000 people here to go back and live our faith in a more active, dynamic way, and I think that will resonate for a long time."


It will help, she added, that Francis shares his message so effectively through social media.

Ginny Dauses, campus minister at St. Mary's High School in Annapolis, described the scene as "a foretaste of heaven" — and a call to action.

"We can't stay inside and keep to ourselves — not after this," she said. "We need to use this momentum to go out and be visible. We need to reinvigorate our hearts, to go out and be with people."

Across Maryland, church leaders, lay members and non-Catholics alike are finding ways to do that.

Pope Francis drew international attention in June when he said climate change is "real and caused by human activity." It's also worsening, he has said, and affects the poor disproportionately.

The advocacy group Interfaith Power & Light agrees that preserving the planet — "our common home," Francis says — should concern all individuals of faith. The organization is joining with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network this weekend to promote "Climate in the Pulpits."


Clerics and environmentalists will address congregants at 85 Maryland houses of worship, including at St. James Episcopal Church, St. Dominic Catholic Parish and St. Anthony's Catholic Parish in Baltimore on Sunday.

Joelle Novey, who directs Interfaith Power & Light, is Jewish. She says she appreciated Francis' framing of climate change as a spiritual matter, linking what he called "deserts of the soul" with the physical deserts some say are threatened.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has scheduled two public events on the heels of the pope's visit.

On Oct. 7, Catholic Relief Services President and CEO Carolyn Woo and others will speak on Francis' encyclical on the environment, and the intersection between theology and the environment, at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park.

The archdiocese is sponsoring a morning of pumpkin picking for the poor at First Fruits Farm in Sparks on Saturday. Organizers are asking the public to help harvest 1,000 pumpkins to be distributed at food banks in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The archdiocese owns the 100-acre spread at the intersection of Belfast and York roads, where church volunteers and others plant and harvest produce to be distributed to those in need.


Some saw the pontiff's teachings as affirmation and reinforcement of efforts already under way in the Baltimore area.

Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities of Baltimore — the charitable arm of the archdiocese — was present when Francis spoke at the White House on Tuesday and celebrated the Mass at the basilica on Wednesday.

He said the pope's emphasis on reaching out and doing more was "wonderful for the mission work of Catholic Charities, for providing care and services for people in need."

That mission was already growing: Catholic Charities' volunteer base of 23,000 is more than twice what it was five years ago, McCarthy said, and more broadly representative of the community. But he said the papal visit should provide a needed bounce as the organization continues to add programs for people in poverty.

Catholic Charities serves half a million hot meals a year in Baltimore, half of them at Our Daily Bread downtown, and runs dozens of programs for the poor.

The organization plans to open a new employment hub, another facility focusing on health care and housing, and a third aimed at helping grandparents who are raising grandchildren.


Footage of the pope's visit, including his visits to a Catholic Charities homeless shelter in Washington, would make a powerful recruiting tool, McCarthy said, as it will show Francis connecting with the people he loves to serve.

"This is a pope whose life is about actions more than words," he said. "It's about the work."

Monsignor Rick Hilgartner, pastor of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Cockeysville, said a papal visit always "puts the Church on the front lines and forces people to think about their faith, if not more frequently, then more intensely."

Francis, he says, has invited the faithful to recognize it's more Christ-like to reach out to others in welcome than to hit them with church doctrine, and the idea has led him to re-examine his own approach.

The parish, which is about 15 percent Latino, has one of the larger Hispanic contingents in the archdiocese. Hilgartner said the pope's frequent use of his native tongue has encouraged that "vital and growing" segment of the community.

Though the church is one of 18 in the area that offer a regular Mass in Spanish, the pastor — who is fluent in Italian — had never learned the language.


"I've been part of the problem," Hilgartner said

He's teaching himself the language now, and planned to celebrate his first Spanish Mass this weekend.

On a highway outside Oxford, Pa., a 17-year-old pilgrim from McSherrystown, Pa., said the walk she was taking to see the pope celebrate Mass in Philadelphia on Sunday has rejuvenated her faith.

Shanon Pieper and two dozen others have developed sore feet and blisters on their seven-day, 108-mile walk from Baltimore, she said, but they've been astonished at the goodwill they've encountered.

The group picked up "four ginormous cardboard boxes" of donated shoes at St. Ursula Church in Parkville, Pieper said. The students of two schools have lined roadsides to meet them, and when they arrived one night at a church near the Pennsylvania border, a group of pilgrims there from Idaho burst into applause.

It all creates a powerful message for the Jubilee Year of Mercy Francis has declared for 2015 and 2016, Pieper said, and she has faith it will continue.


"Since the pope has been here, people have been paying attention to the church and its true message of love and leading," she said. "They'll want to carry this on. I know I won't go back to my house and just forget."

Carlson, the Notre Dame Prep minister, says "Francis Fever" has been rampant on campus. Students have tied ribbons to trees to symbolize problems Christian love can untangle, watched two papal addresses on TV, donated shoes, followed his tweets, posed for photos with his life-size cutout and challenged each other to proclaim at least one way in which they'll "stand with Francis."

Most important, Carlson says, Francis' humble demeanor and practice of including others, whatever their age, station or nationality, has created the kind of effect normally reserved for the latest pop superstar.

"I laugh because five years ago you'd see pictures of Justin Bieber on lockers," she said. "Now it's the pope: 'Did you see his [tweets] last night? Did you see what he had to say?'

"The joy has been contagious, and it has affected me."

Carlson asked her students to study the foursome Francis mentioned, choose one, and name one thing they can do to emulate that figure.


It's not a typical list. Neither Lincoln nor King was Catholic. Merton spent 27 years in a monastery. Day, who founded the Catholic Worker social justice movement, had an abortion before she converted to Catholicism.

What they had in common, Francis said, was a dedication to the common good as defined by the Gospel.

Carlson believed her students would catch the drift.

"They feel this pope is listening to them," she said. "They're listening to him, too."