Build bridges, not walls

Build bridges, not walls

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

In late September of this year an aging Italian immigrant from Argentina, who is the leader of one of the largest religious denomination in the world, landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, just outside our nation’s capital.

This man addressed a joint session of Congress, the United Nations, led an interfaith prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial, spoke to a standing room only crowd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and addressed a packed house at Madison Square Garden.

Over 100,000 people waited for as long as 10 hours to get a glimpse of this holy man in Central Park. He concluded his historic visit to the United States with a final stop in Philadelphia where more than one million people came out to greet him.

Catholics call this holy man the Vicar of Christ on Earth. The rest of the world knows him as Pope Francis. In his brief stay among us he challenged our leaders, both politically and religiously, to do more for the poor, for the undocumented, for the discarded and for the marginalized in our midst.

He embraced the homeless, visited immigrant schoolchildren in East Harlem and prison inmates at the largest prison in Philadelphia. Pope Francis gave 26 public addresses in his short time with us.

Everywhere he went people came out in record numbers to merely catch a glimpse of this prophetic voice, this humble pilgrim who is changing the landscape of the world. I was privileged to be the religious consultant for WCBS radio in New York, so I had access to all of his written speeches before he gave them.

Everywhere he spoke he challenged us to do more for the discarded and the marginalized. He spoke about being more inclusive, not being judgmental, not hiding behind rules and regulations but rather sharing and living the faith. He said to the cardinals, bishops and priests like myself that “we have to build bridges and not walls for that is what Christ did!”

New York City was on fire with Francis Fever. Everywhere I walked on that Thursday and Friday he was among us, and people from every walk of life and perspective commented on his simplicity, his humility and his persuasive choice of words.

What amazed me about this holy man is that he leads by example; he practices what he preaches. At the joint session of Congress he spoke about his four American heroes — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement,) and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk — probably among the most prolific spiritual writer of our time.

Each person was painfully human but also profoundly prophetic in calling us to respect the human dignity and human rights of all people who share our “common home.”

Probably the most powerful image that will stay with me forever about this pope was the picture of him in the popemobile driving from Philadelphia International Airport and all of a sudden, once again off script, telling the driver to stop. He opened the door and stepped out of his little Fiat.

The emotion of the crowd was beyond words. He walked up to a young teenager who was laying on a stretcher with his mother standing next to him, knelt down, hugged the boy and kissed him on the forehead. He took hold of his head and blessed him. He then stood up, hugged the teenager’s mother, walked back to his little Fiat and continued the motorcade to the city of brotherly love!

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.