Pope Francis arrives in the United States in 2015 Pope Francis arrives in the United States in 2015 

Former US Bishops' President Archbishop Kurtz recalls Pope Francis' visit to US

For the 10-year anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio's election as Pope, the former President of the US Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, reflects on Pope Francis' historic visit to the United States in 2015, and praises the Pope's ability to accompany the faithful in every part of the globe.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

As the Church celebrates the ten-year anniversary of Pope Francis' election as Pope, we speak to Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the former head of the US Bishops, who led the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for the Holy Father's historic visit to the United States in 2015.

In the interview, the Archbishop Emeritus of Louisville, Kentucky, speaks about the Pope's impact during these ten years of leading the universal Church.

Q: Archbishop Kurtz, with the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, we had the first Pope from the Americas. You led the US bishops as Head of the USCCB when Pope Francis had come to America in 2015. What memory has that left you?

Well, of course, it's left me with a kaleidoscope of memories. Now, seven and a half years ago, our Holy Father visited the United States, and one of the things I remember most is that it was a real pilgrimage. There were so many photographs that were shared throughout the United States. That pilgrimage ended in Philadelphia with the World Meeting of Families. But even in Philadelphia, I managed to go with him and others to a correctional facility as well, and in New York City, there are many highlights, including the Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, of course, the 9/11 Memorial, where we had an ecumenical and interfaith service, that was very, very moving. We cannot forget his visit to the United Nations, or when he went to a Catholic school in Harlem.

Pope Francis in St. Patrick's Cathedral
Pope Francis in St. Patrick's Cathedral

As the USCCB president, I had the privilege, among others, to accompany him in all of those visits. So I had, what you might call, "a front row seat." Of course, he began in our nation's capital, at the White House, on the lawn with the US President, and going to Catholic Charity's kitchen, to serve people who were desperately in need of food. He made a short visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

I want to mention one other thing. He had come to the United States, from his trip [a few hours on the way to the US] to Cuba. It was at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where I had gone to the seminary, where all the Bishops who had come from around the world were gathered. On that occasion, Pope Francis gave me as the President of the Conference, a beautiful statue of Nostra Signora della Carità del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), that the Bishops of Cuba had given to the Bishops of the United States. That statue continues to be in a special shrine in Miami, which is kind of a center, especially for the faithful of Cuba. It's a beautiful, tangible memorial.

Listen to the full interview with Former President of the US Bishops, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz:

The Pope's talk to Congress on the 24th of September was also especially significant. It was then that he began by saying that he, too, is a son of this great continent. And like John Paul before him, he considers, when he spoke about America, the continent, North and South America we think of, that he thinks of the Americas as one. So that was kind of touching. And he called himself the son of this great continent. He, of course, in that talk, gave really picturesque examples when he invoked Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, and in all cases, talking about the gifts of freedom, the gifts of human dignity, the need for dialogue, the need for speaking up in defense of freedom. There he gave a very rich address. I believe he was also the first Pope who gave an address to the Joint Meeting of Congress in the United States.

Q: What about Pope Francis, as a person, struck you? You already shared some very moving memories. Are there specific memories, or something during the trip between you two, that really struck you?

One of the images that I have is: I happened to be in the papal airplane that took us from Washington to New York. And he got on the plane and he was saying his prayers. I was a couple of seats back. You've been on the papal planes, and so you know the structure of it. And he just looked so tired, and I saw that he was saying his prayers, and then I think he dozed off to sleep. And I thought, oh, my gosh, he was exhausted, and it was beginning the trip. And all of a sudden the plane landed. You could see people waiting for him in New York City, and he perked up as if he was as fresh as a daisy in spring. It was beautiful, the way the people themselves brought out renewed energy from him. And I can remember that was very visible.

Pope Francis at 9/11 Memorial in New York
Pope Francis at 9/11 Memorial in New York

Q: Why do you think Pope Francis's simplicity, humility and his sort of down to earth way has struck a chord with many Americans?

Well, you know, there was often a sense really not just of our Holy Father, but of people from any Heads of State who were remote and removed. And when we saw pictures, it would be of people at formal dinners and whatnot. Here, I think our Holy Father seemed to burst into joy when he was with the simplest of situations, when he was visiting little children, or people who were incarcerated in Philadelphia. I saw him just spark up with joy. And I think that touches people very much. And in his early days, of course, I think we can't forget the time that he, when elected Pope, went and paid for his hotel room, something that captured the minds of people. And now with a 24 hour news cycle, if one does something literally in seconds, it's broadcast across the world.

Q: Being the first, mother tongue Spanish-speaking Pope, being from Argentina, what do you think Pope Francis' leading the Catholic Church has meant to the country's large Hispanic presence?

I think they take great pride in the fact that Pope Francis is Latino, and in many ways I think, one of the few folks, who was not from Europe itself. I think he was diverse, from another continent, and that itself, I think, was great pride and joy. And of course, within the United States, there's a growing presence of Latino faithful. That's a great source of joy and pride to many people.

Q: Archbishop, in your opinion, what are the most significant ways Pope Francis has enriched and shaped the Church in these ten years?

In many ways, I think you put your finger on it in terms of the personalization and his desire to see the, I would call it, 'the person in the pew,' and to be able to encourage all of us to reach out in accompanying people. He uses the word accompaniment a great deal, and I think that has been a great source of joy. I still believe that his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was the keynote, and it bridges the gap between his predecessors for Benedict himself, and he talks about the presence of Jesus Christ as being the encounter in which our lives are changed. And I think his focus on peace and the desire to promote joy in the midst of all the suffering that the world goes through, is a great gift.

Pope Francis in the United States
Pope Francis in the United States

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13 March 2023, 11:16