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By Denise Crosby, Aurora Beacon-News

Posted on 08/28/2015  on

I’m sure you took note of how everyone and their Congressional representative jumped on the pope’s bandwagon.

From the moment I knew Pope Francis was coming to America, I figured I better get in on the act: write something profound (and preferably local) about his visit.

The Holy Father’s arrival in our country and his historic address to a joint session of Congress was huge news, after all. And yes, I’ve followed the so-called “Francis Affect” with increasing interest, as this 78-year-old boss of me and 1.2 billion other Catholics has captivated our increasingly conflicted, crowded and connected world like never before.

I wrote about his election as leader of the church and talked to parishioners, nuns and priests back in 2013 when the white smoke had cleared and Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged on the world stage as Pope Francis.

I talked to Catholics again after the pope was credited with helping restore diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December. But I’ve never spoken about the pope to those who are most frequently at the center of his messages: our community’s neediest.

Mea culpa.

And so, I went to Hesed House, where I sat with a group of men and women – some clients, a few volunteers – while they enjoyed lunch and watched the Holy Father deliver his speech to Congress.

There, he beseeched this most powerful nation’s most powerful leaders to not let money drive decisions at the expense of humanity, and to use their influence to heal the “open wounds” of a world suffering from violence, hatred, greed, poverty and pollution.

“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They, too, need to be given hope,” he said.

Later, addressing a room filled with homeless clients at a Washington, D.C. church, he declared, “We can find no social or moral justification … for lack of housing.”

I have to say, listening to the pontiff’s words while sitting among those who are homeless was the most humbling assignment I had all month, for it’s clear from all I know about this pope that these are the people he loves most.

It was a mutual admiration society: Those lunching at the shelter were captivated by the pope’s presentation, following along carefully with printouts of his message that was sometimes hard to understand because of his strong accent. They soaked up every word, nodding vigorously at times, commenting when a particular idea or topic– including the arms trades, death penalty, immigration and social inequality – touched their hearts.

Fifty-eight-year-old Guy Manning seemed especially moved when the pope told Congress our response to the violence in the world must “be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice … ”

For 64-year-old Marty Craig, a former altar boy, it was when the pope invoked the names of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

“This is powerful,” said Craig, when the pope referred to the “hard work and sacrifice” of these individuals “to build a better future.”

James White, working on a piece of apple pie and sporting a silver crucifix hanging from a thick chain, nodded vigorously when Francis told Congress that building a “future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”

“The pope is a heavy dude,” proclaimed 61-year-old White, who describes himself as an eclectic but sees Francis as “more than a religious leader … he is a world leader.”

As fascinating as the pope is to me, he can also make me uncomfortable. No matter how softly his words are spoken, they manage to present an in-your-face challenge that all of us must begin to rethink our priorities, including how we spend our time, money and influence. He is trying with all his might to use his time on this world stage – and Twitter account — to remind us we need to be more compassionate, more involved, more inclusive and …

“To start seeing the world in shades of gray,” noted Debbie Harrington, who has worked with the homeless at Hesed House for 14 years and can attest to the “wonderful, intelligent, hard-working” folks who live there.

Thanks to the pope, I got to meet a few of them. And we all agreed this gentle man in white offers hope to all who hear his words.

“He can make a rightful claim to be a global citizen,” said White. “This pope is going to make an impact.”

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