Migdalia Root has dreamed of seeing the pope since she was a girl attending St. Ephraim Catholic Church in the Dyker Heights area of Brooklyn. A devout Catholic, Root visited Vatican City hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II, without any luck. Now, a grandmother and retired District of Columbia civil servant, the St. Vincent de Paul parishioner has joined other anxious adherents praying their names are selected to attend a D.C. mass to be led by Pope Francis.
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Root said it is imperative that all Catholics accept the Pope as a direct connection to God and God’s expectations, especially in times of social crisis. “There are many issues in life that require a spiritual response rather than a political one, or a popular one,” Root said. “As we turn against one another more and more over racial and political differences, a spiritual authority is needed to anchor us. That is the Pope.”
According to Catholic historian and Benedictine monk Cyprian Davis in The History of Black Catholics in the United States, the needs of Black Catholics are of the upmost concern as “Black and Brown” membership now outnumbers that of Whites. “Go to Rome and about every third person in religious garb or collar is Brown skinned or Black, Davis wrote. “Asians and Africans have made our church, in its very center, a truly universal church.”
While Pope Francis is expected to address topics including forgiveness for women who have had abortions, race or racism isn’t among them. Still, if the climate at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held in June is any indication, race could unexpectedly take center stage.
At the St. Louis gathering, the organization’s president, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz offered a statement directly challenging the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, which said in part, “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our church. . . . We must address root causes of these conflicts – a violent, sorrowful history of racial injustice, accompanied by a lack of educational, employment, and housing opportunities.”
For Marcus Spicer, a long-time congregant of St. Augustine’s in Northwest, the pope’s visit will help redirect some of his energy to God’s purpose for his life. “It has made me take stock in my fears about being a young, Black man in a world that is often unkind and judgmental,” Spicer said. “Since the bishops started the ball rolling, I pray the Pope picks it up and helps this nation heal.”
If Pope Francis wants to heal Catholics in America, his first visit to the U.S. is his chance. He will be in the District of Columbia from Sept. 22-24. Later, he will travel to New York City and Philadelphia.
While in Washington, he will visit President Obama at the White House on Sept. 23, and will become the first pope to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Sept. 24. Religious events in the District include a Sept. 23 mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; prayer meetings with Catholic bishops at St. Matthews Cathedral, a stop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and visiting charities associated with the Archdiocese of Washington.
Pope Francis will be the third pontiff to visit Washington. Pope John Paul II came to Washington and met with President Carter, among others, in 1979, and President George W. Bush greeted Pope Benedict XVI April 15, 2008, at Andrews Air Force Base, a first for a U.S. president.
In 1979, then D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and his wife, Effi, met Pope John Paul II and in 2009, then D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty escorted Pope Benedict XVI around the city. It’s not clear at this point whether D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will have an opportunity to meet Pope Francis.
Franklin Garcia, the District’s statehood U.S. representative, is a member of the Catholic Church and can’t wait for the pontiff’s arrival. “This is a historic visit because this is the first pope from Latin America and the Washington area has a large Hispanic population,” Garcia said. “It is really special that he will hold the Sept. 23 mass in Spanish and that means he recognizes the magnitude of Hispanics in this nation.”
Garcia said his position as an elected official in the District doesn’t give him special access to the pontiff. “I will have the best seat because I will be watching him on television,” he said.
His colleague, D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), said she wants Pope Francis to come to her ward for a tour. The pontiff is very compassionate toward the poor and May notes, ironically, that he is not scheduled to visit the city’s low-income and working-class neighborhoods.
“Ward 8 needs resources and his presence could have brought that out,” May said. “We have Catholic institutions in the ward like Lady of Perpetual Help Church and Saint Teresa Avila Catholic Church and we have a number of Ward 8 residents who are Catholic. It would have been great for the ward if he could have come here but that wasn’t my decision to make.”