Faith, politics converge in D.C.

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Faith, politics converge in D.C.

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SLU students witness papal history

Though Pope Francis concluded his first ever trip to the United States on Sunday, Sept. 27, by making the long trek back to Rome, the impact of his whirlwind tour – Cuba, to Washington, D.C., then New York City, and finally, Philadelphia – is still apparent. From pictures of the pontiff populating social media, to videos of him waving to crowds, blessing individuals and kissing babies, a renewed appreciation for history’s first Jesuit pope is revealed. Indeed, Saint Louis University was busy on Thursday, Sept. 24, as the Center for Global Citizenship hosted an early morning watch-party to provide students the opportunity to view the first papal address to a joint session of Congress.

But, a few students were even luckier.

Thanks to the generosity of Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, SLU secured ten tickets to watch the pope’s speech on the front lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The tickets were allotted via  lottery, which over 1,000 students entered. Of the 1,000 entrees, eight students – Benjamin Baldwin, Arijana Grabic, Tori Scranton, Estefania Torres, Danielle Hopkins, Nikki Kuhlman, Luke Viehl and Delaney Palmer – were chosen for the trip, which was sponsored by Campus Ministry. The ninth ticket was given to Campus Minister Erin Schmidt, and I was graced with the tenth spot and the incredible opportunity to cover the pope’s visit for The University News.

The trip was brief – the group departed early on Wednesday, Sept. 23 and returned late the following day. But, perhaps, the brevity of the trip reflected the style of the Pope: effective and simple.

We spent Wednesday exploring D.C., a city that many in the group had not seen.

“D.C. reminded me a lot of St. Louis,” Torres, a sophomore in the College of Public Health and Social Justice, mentioned. “So it was nice feeling comfortable walking to all the different monuments.”

Though our visit was short, the excitement of the pope’s presence permeated the city. Papal flags lined the main thoroughfares, and Francis bobble heads sat on the shelves of gift shops. For members of the SLU entourage, the pull of Francis – the “Francis effect,” as the world has dubbed it – was evident.

“The trip to Washington is not one that I will ever forget,” Viehl, a fourth-year med student, said. “Pope John Paul II made his mission about poverty, traveling the world and in doing so, shedding light on important issues worldwide. Pope Benedict XVI was more of an academic pope of sorts … Pope Francis has made huge strides in bringing back many people to the Church [who have] wandered away.”

On Thursday, Sept. 24, the gates to the capitol lawn – those accessible to ticket holders such as our group – opened at 5 a.m., and though the Pope’s speech was not scheduled to start until at least 10 a.m., the designated areas were full hours before. People milled about, slept, played card games, and drank coffee. The lines to use the temporary bathrooms were long, and a number of older pilgrims were carried off in stretchers – too tired and exhausted to remain standing in the stifling heat.

But, the excitement was obvious. When the jumbotrons set up on the steps of the capitol flickered on, showing Francis departing his temporary residence for Congress in his Fiat, we sprang from our early morning stupor to whoop and cheer.

Francis’ speech touched on most of the main tenets of his papal cause – caring for the poor and vulnerable, welcoming immigrants and abolishing the death penalty – and his words, delivered in heavily-accented, but precise, English, touched a note for the SLU students present.

“The part that resonated with me the most was when the Pope spoke of immigrants,” Torres said. “My family and I are immigrants, so for him to address it was very important for us.”

“I expected the Pope to say most of the things that he said,” Baldwin, an Arts and Sciences senior, remarked. “He is someone who doesn’t worry about upsetting politicians. His focus is the health and welfare of the people around the world, the sick, the poor.”

“He defended almost every marginalized or forgotten about group of people,” Hopkins, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, added. “He reminded Congress that it is their responsibility to look out for the welfare of all U.S. citizens and non-citizens living in our country, [and he] encouraged them to always be thinking of [the needs of] poor and hopeless peoples.”

A Jesuit in the Vatican

The trip was Jesuit to the core: students from a Jesuit university travel to D.C., stay on the campus of a fellow Jesuit institution – Georgetown – overnight and witness the first Jesuit pontiff become the first pope to ever address Congress. For members of the SLU trip, Francis’ leadership of the Catholic Church has invigorated their sense of what it means to be Jesuit-educated.

“I think that the phrase ‘men and women for others’ rings more true to me now then it ever did before,” Viehl said. “From the time Pope Francis began in office, he made it about others. He refused the luxuries that the pope is afforded, and I greatly respect him for that.”

This sentiment is also shared among SLU’s Jesuit leaders.

“I think Francis is so popular because he seems joyful and simple,” said Fr. Christopher Collins, SJ, SLU’s special assistant to the President for Mission and Identity. “He is accessible. And he has as a priority simple, loving interactions with people of all stripes.”

“I think we have all kinds of faculty and staff [who are] very much in tune with this way of being,” he added. “It’s not like it’s a big change for us. But, it does give extra motivation for us to be good to one another and to reach out into the community beyond the boundaries of campus.”

Arijana Grabic, a College of Public Health and Social Justice graduate student, offered a similar insight.

“The one thing that stood out the most about the entire experience was Pope Francis’ ability to incorporate all people, regardless of faith, in his blessing to the crowd,” she said. “He asked for good wishes from those who do not believe and those who cannot pray. He knows how to get people to come together for something bigger than all of us … He makes promoting the common good and becoming men and women for others look easy.”