WASHINGTON — It was fleeting, but it was phenomenal.
That was the sentiment of those inside St. Patrick Catholic Church in Washington on Thursday when Pope Francis stopped by.
The pope entered the oldest Catholic church in the city around 11:30 a.m. after leaving Capitol Hill. Thirty minutes later, the 60 parishioners and 200 Catholic Charities clients inside would spill out the doors after the pontiff had moved on to an event at the charity next door.
While the pope had some high-profile venues in the nation’s capital — a meeting with President Obama, an address to Congress, a canonization Mass at the National Shrine — the stop at St. Patrick’s was one of the most intimate. And the shortness of the visit mattered little to those in attendance who said his message on the homeless resonated and his demeanor inspired.
“It was just like having Jesus there,” parishioner Mae Fasser, 90, said sweetly.
“It was like having the pope in my home,” added parishioner Hunter Kimble, a 2011 convert and altar server at the church. The pope “brings such a beautiful message. His whole demeanor is so peaceful, so calm.”
Francis was clearly in his element as he moved toward the clients of Catholic Charities in the room.
Anthony Massaquoi is a student in the charity organization’s green construction program, which prepares clients for “green” building, a cause near and dear to the Jesuit pope. But what Massaquoi saw Thursday inside St. Patrick’s was something more personal. “He was walking up. He looked at me, and I got to hold his hand,” Massaquoi said. “He was smiling, happy. I said ‘thank you.'”
Celia Sterling, a supervisor in green building, one of the charity’s 64 programs serving the D.C. area, was equally struck. “It was something wonderful having him so close. You feel that peace, that serenity,” she said.
Homelessness, something Catholic Charities’ CEO John Enzler calls the No. 1 issue in the city, was front and center in the pope’s remarks to those at the church. “He spoke about Christ being born homeless,” Massaquoi said. “It was like he was saying we are in this together.”
Kimble said the pope “talked at length about a friend of mine, St. Joseph” and said it was “important to remember our Lord came into the world as a homeless pastor.”
The pope, who never sat in the chair provided for him at the altar, looked at the crowd and “kept hammering home: No one should be homeless,” Kimble said.
A few hours before the pope’s arrival, Rene Simpson waited in the security line snaking around the corner. Having Francis as pope is “the same experience as when (Obama) became president,” she said. Simpson, a 1982 graduate of the now-closed St. Patrick Academy next to the church, said she “loves what (Francis) stands for. He is so passionate about the homeless.”
For Sidney Fowler, pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ across the street from St. Patrick, something else stands out: “I think he is a unifier.”
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