Archbishop Leonard Blair travelled to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., during Pope Francis’ historic first visit to the United States. Along the way, he recorded his thoughts and impressions. The following are excerpts:
Tuesday, Sept. 22, 4:55 p.m.
After having a very smooth and good flight from Hartford to Washington Reagan, I am now at the hotel where the bishops are staying in Arlington, Va., not far from Reagan Airport. I have to say how nice it was at the airport back in Hartford and on the airplane; how many people came up to me when they saw my collar and commented very happily on the Pope being here in the United States. It’s really very heartwarming, and the people assured me of their prayers and their happiness at seeing the Pope.
....So I’m happy, too, on the TV to see how warmly and happily the Pope’s been received upon his arrival in our country, and I look forward to giving further the reports as we move along.
Wednesday, Sept. 23, 9 p.m.
This morning, I had a truly beautiful experience being with all the bishops of the United States at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., for the Pope’s meeting with us and for his words.
...And I say that it was truly beautiful; it was very edifying and very encouraging to me as a bishop. He repeated some of the themes that he has spoken of in his previous public teaching about the Joy of the Gospel, but particularly the encouragement he gave to us to be joyful and be true pastors of our people, and above all, not to be afraid. He said in the face of today’s challenges that there is a certain boldness we have to have without fear, but always out of love for people and out of love for even those who are not in agreement with us, or even those who do not share our beliefs. So all in all, I thought it was a wonderful experience and a very edifying one.
As chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, I am part of the Administrative Committee of the Bishop’s Conference and so I was one of those presented to the Pope personally. And I told him that I was chair of that committee and he gave me some encouragement, how important that work of evangelization and catechesis is in the church today.
This afternoon, on a very beautiful fall afternoon and evening, we celebrated Mass with Pope Francis on the grounds of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at The Catholic University of America. The Mass was in Spanish with about 25,000 people participating, and it was a Mass for the canonization of Father Junipero Serra, a great missionary and founder of many of the California missions.
This Mass was very spirited, with music and readings and prayers in many, many languages reflecting the diversity of the church in the United States. Our Holy Father gave a very fine homily in which he talked about the need we have to bring the mercy and love of God to the world in which we live today. [He] talked about Father Serra as someone whose motto was “Always forward, never back”; that he was determined to always move forward in his work no matter what the obstacles or challenges presented themselves. And that we too, need to have this tender mercy of God for everyone in today’s world.
So it was a wonderful experience, as all these things are with the Holy Father; the people were so enthusiastic and I think we really had a beautiful celebration together...
Thursday, Sept. 24, 1:20 p.m.
I am just sitting on our Amtrak Acela train, I and about 80 other bishops. We are on our way now to Philadelphia. This morning at the hotel, after I celebrated Mass and had breakfast, we watched the Holy Father’s address to Congress. I found that very interesting. I think it was well-received and rightly so. To my mind, he picked up many of the great social teaching themes that have been part of modern pontificates, but as always, he does it in such an engaging way, inviting people to enter into a kind of dialogue with him and with our faith. But he also, I thought very beautifully, brought in figures from American history to kind of illustrate or exemplify the points he was trying to make.
So, the trip continues to be well-received, and we should be in Philadelphia in about an hour and 15 minutes, [when] I will proceed to Loews Hotel, where the bishops are staying....
Thursday, Sept. 24, 6:10 p.m.
Having arrived in Philadelphia and checked into the hotel I took a walk, a short walk, over to the big Convention Center for the World Meeting of Families, which is being centered there and that includes a huge exhibition hall. This is a great international event and the family guidebook for the meeting is printed not only in English, but in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Vietnamese as well. The World Meeting began last Tuesday and there are really very good speakers, international speakers, in various languages, and the themes include things like, “Living as the Image of God: Created for Joy and Love,” “The Light of the Family in a Dark World,” “The School of the Heart: Parents as Primary Catechists,” “A House Divided: Christ as Unifier of a Blended Family,” “Loving the Elderly.” These are just some of the examples that I can give of the kinds of talks that are being given all this week on the theme of Marriage and Family Life....
Friday, Sept. 25, 4:50 p.m.
Like many others, I have spent a good part of today glued to the television watching the Holy Father’s continuing visit in New York, beginning with the United Nations this morning and then the schoolchildren this afternoon. Here in Philadelphia, we’re all waiting for his arrival, and you can see all the preparations as the city is being closed down to traffic and the people who are in the streets are mainly pilgrims who’ve come to be with the Holy Father and for the World Meeting of Families.
Our official pilgrimage group from the Archdiocese of Hartford is on the way already and my biggest challenge is to try to figure how to get to them tomorrow through all the transportation hurdles and security. Early tomorrow, I’ll be getting on a transit line from here out to the outskirts of the city and hopefully that will work okay. There are some limitations to this service, but if I get out there, I’ll only be 10 minutes away from the parish where our group will be having their retreat and the Mass that I am to celebrate for them. Then in the evening, hopefully, I can come back with them on the bus to the Festival of Families and from there I can manage to rejoin the bishops and get back to the hotel.
When I went to buy my SEPTA transit line token this morning I was told that at my age I can ride for free, so there you have it. The kind lady at the booth did ask me for proof, which I was very happy that she asked. I had to prove I was over 65; that’s very consoling.
Saturday, Sept. 26, 4:35 p.m.
I am just about to watch on television the Pope’s address at Independence Hall on Religious Liberty. My reason for being in the hotel and not at the actual site is that I spent the day with our pilgrims from Hartford at St. Andrew’s Parish, about a half-hour trip from here by the Metro. We had a wonderful day together as far as two fine talks by Father Juan Diego [Brunetta], a Dominican priest, on the theme of mercy, and I celebrated Mass with our pilgrim group and had lunch and a group picture before returning here. But that meant it’s not possible for me to join the other bishops to go to Independence Hall, but I am happy to watch it with so many of you on the television.
Really, the theme of mercy that Father Juan Diego developed at the parish for our people is very important because it is at the heart of what the Holy Father is focusing on for the Jubilee of Mercy that begins in December. It is very much tied to the theme of the family as well, which is the focus of this particular meeting in Philadelphia.
So far, everything is going well and our pilgrims seem very happy and pleased. Tonight is the Festival for the Family, which includes a lot of great, well-known American entertainers and it’s just a festive occasion with the Holy Father being present.
Monday, Sept. 28, 3:30 p.m.
I want to make this last recording about the papal visit. Having arrived home this morning, I am at work. We just finished a priests’ council meeting in which I shared with our priests some of the events from last week from my perspective. Last night, of course, in Philadelphia, we concluded with a beautiful Mass, and again today in the airport in Philadelphia, how many people would come up to me when they saw my collar and tell me what a wonderful experience it was. The people in Philadelphia did a great job in hosting the Holy Father and all of us.
So now I think the important thing is to be up to the challenges that he’s raised for us: that as a Catholic people, we really renew ourselves as missionary disciples of the Lord; that we get out there and practice the spiritual works of mercy, acts of charity. That we reach out to the many people who are looking for something in life, looking for a way forward in their life. We, of course, believe that comes from faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, from participation in the life of the church, worship, the sacraments and above all, prayer. The Holy Father concluded by asking for all of our prayers for him, and as we think of the great responsibility that he has, not only as it relates to our country but to the whole world and over a billion Catholics, we know how much we do need to pray for him. And so I encourage everyone to do so. And I also want to thank all those who had a hand in organizing our pilgrims from the Archdiocese. They did a lot of fine work for which we are all very grateful, I am sure.
(This travelogue, both as audio and text, is on the Transcript’s website. It is also on the Archdiocese of Hartford’s website, archdioceseofhartford.org, which was linked by NBC Connecticut and other online media.)