If you want to know what the culture of encounter is, ask John Boehner. He was the Speaker of the House the day Pope Francis visited the U.S. Capitol building. The next morning, he announced that he was resigning from both the speakership and his congressional seat.
If you watch the video or look at the pictures of Pope Francis addressing Congress, his image is framed by a smiling Joe Biden on one side and John Boehner on the other, dabbing his face with a hand- kerchief. Watch the video of Pope Francis blessing the people gathered outside the Capitol Building and you see the two figures again, only now John Boehner is openly weeping.
And even that wasn’t the worst. “I was really emotional in a moment where really no one saw,” Boehner said in a press conference. “As the pope and I were getting ready to exit the building we found ourselves alone. The pope grabbed my left arm and said some very kind words to me about my commitment to kids and education.”
Boehner choked with tears as he told the next part of the story. “Then the pope puts his arm around me and kind of pulls me toward him and says, ‘Please, pray for me.’”
“Wow,” he said, “who am I to pray for the pope? But I did.”
Robert Costa, a political reporter at the Washington Post said he and Politico’s Jake Sherman ran into the Speaker after the pope’s visit and sensed something was up. Boehner normally brushes past reporters on his way out of the Capitol at the end of the day, but not this day. He told and retold his story, repeating the key moments several times in his enthusiasm. Then he stood looking wistfully into the distance before he walked outside.
Boehner’s colleagues were stunned to learn at a meeting the next day that Boehner was resigning. Costa wasn’t. “If they had seen him Thursday at twilight, vividly remembering a pope’s simple request, maybe they wouldn’t have been that surprised,” he said.
The Pope Francis Effect
There were many reasons for Boehner to want to resign, but Pope Francis was clearly the impetus for the sudden decision. Not the message of Pope Francis—not his words of comfort or challenge—but the very fact of Pope Francis meeting him and taking him seriously as a Christian.
You hear that again and again from people after they meet the pope. Sister Bernadette Rose was a second year novice with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Queens Village, New York, when she traveled to Washington for the canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra. She told me she was waiting for Mass to begin when her superior got a text message saying that the pope would be visiting their house. The whole group left Mass to be able to greet him. That night at 6:45 PM, police cars and flags filled the street, and Pope Francis arrived in a Fiat.
“He just walked through our chapel doors and there were probably thirty-five sisters ready to greet him,” she said. “He made his rounds to every single one of us and took time to talk to us. Each of us. We even have this little Columbian sister who is 102 years old. He asked her if she still likes wine. She said ‘No, no, no! Only café.’ He smiled and said ‘Very good. Me, too.’”
Sister Bernadette said just being with him boosted her faith. “He looked at me and smiled,” she said. “I held the hand of the successor of Peter, and his gaze was like Jesus looking into my soul.”
The experience left her a little overwhelmed. “I’m still kind of trying to take it in,” she said a few days later. “It really affirmed me in my vocation. It really boosts my confidence to live this life of virginity for the Church and for the Lord, which can be difficult.”
She said Pope Francis gave the sisters an impromptu speech about the importance of their work with the elderly. “He said our work isn’t appreciated, helping the elderly…but that we do it for Jesus. He said every day you need to sing into his ear. Sing, ‘I love you Jesus. I’m doing this for you.’ Then he said that if it’s just one of those days when everything is hard, you can look at that difficult resident and say, ‘you know, Jesus, you’re really being a nuisance right now. you are really being spoiled, Jesus!’ He shook his finger when he said it.”
She appreciated the quiet, familiar visit. “When I watched him going into all these crowded, loud atmospheres, taking selfies with teens, meeting kids in Harlem, it really made me appreciate what we had,” she said. “Our meeting was just so intimate. That’s the word that keeps coming back to me. It was so intimate.”
But those who encountered the pope in a crowd had similar experiences of his presence. Ruth Smart of Brooklyn saw him in New York’s Central Park and told the Associated Press about it. “As he passed by, you felt a cool, refreshing peace, as if he were spreading a huge blanket of peace through the crowd,” she said. “Even though the crowd exploded in a roar, it was pure joy.”
Winning Over the Media
Before he arrived, the New York Times treated the pope like a traffic story—a terrible storm headed their way. But describing his visit, after the fact, the Times dissolved into lyrical joy.
“The layers of political commentary that followed his remarks in Washington earlier in the week seemed to fall away, leaving the day one of pure emotion for Francis and those wishing to be near him,” reported the Times. It described the scene at the Ground Zero memorial: “There, he paused for a long moment of silent reflection, gazing down into the pool of cascading water, which, from the visitor’s vantage point, has no visible bottom.”
Julie Rodgers, a seventy-year-old woman, told the Times, “I’m Jewish, and this is still the coolest moment of my life.”
A Channel 7 reporter in New York interviewed a sobbing woman at Ground Zero after Pope Francis’s prayer there. She said she had been present when the twin towers were attacked on September 11, 2001. “I witnessed the atrocities of mankind and I really had lost hope,” she said. “I lost faith and I didn’t feel that we actually had a chance. And this is the first time ever in the last fourteen years that I actually believe we really do have a chance. It makes that much of a difference.” As her sobbing overcame her voice, the interview ended with the reporter hugging her.
The power of the papal presence was described like that, again and again, in coverage of the event: It brought peace, joy—and encouragement. The National Catholic Register newspaper asked a number of bishops to sum up their encounters with Pope Francis, and again and again, they summed up the effect of the pope as “encouraging.”
“I very much felt his embrace,” said Baltimore Archbishop William Lori. “He wanted to show his unity with us as bishops of the United States. That was beautiful and important. He encouraged us to show the same love to fellow priests and engage in a kind of faithful, courageous and creative dialogue with culture and a Church that is a welcoming missionary. I felt very affirmed by that.”
“He didn’t come in any way, shape or form to chide us,” said Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyoming. “He came to encourage us, to be among us, to tell us not to be afraid. He wants us to be a beacon of light and truth to our people, because they’re longing for it.”