WASHINGTON — Pope Francis delivered fresh inspiration Wednesday for Nebraskans and Iowans who attended the canonization Mass for Junipero Serra, an 18th century Spanish missionary who brought Catholicism to the American West Coast.
The pope’s words held a particular resonance for Sister Laura Reicks of Omaha, who is president of the Sisters of Mercy of the West Midwest Community.
Her religious community’s ministry is focused on helping those in need. That includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick.
“His message today seemed to be we can’t be complacent and we can’t get caught up in what we feel safe doing,” Reicks told The World-Herald after the Mass. “We have to open our doors and our hearts and look outside of us and get dirty and not be afraid to be dirty because we’re getting involved. It was a good message to remind us that ‘easy’ is not what Jesus did.”
Reicks previously lived in Washington for years. She often went to fireworks displays or other large gatherings.
But those were very different from Wednesday’s event, where thousands celebrated Mass on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
She described it as a joyous, faith-based street fair marked by kindness. And she was struck by the diversity of the crowd.
“It was a really wonderful variety of cultures and people and personality,” she said.
Tim O’Neill of Omaha was moved as well. O’Neill is president of Serra International, which works to encourage Catholic vocations and has Serra as its patron.
He said the devotion of the crowd could be felt when cheers resounded as Francis circled before the Mass in his popemobile.
“He brings a lot of passion to the people,’’ O’Neill said.
The canonization was polarizing. Serra is revered by Catholics for his missionary work, and many Latinos in the U.S. view his canonization as a badly needed acknowledgment of Hispanics’ role in the American church. But many Native Americans say Serra enslaved converts and contributed to the spread of disease that wiped out indigenous populations.
Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines attended the pope’s talk with American bishops before the Mass.
Pates said Francis spoke from his heart as he described the United States as a nation of immigrants.
He said the pope bolstered the bishops’ spirits, urging them to reach out to those on the margins and address the problems of the day.
“It’s great encouragement for us,” Pates said.
The pope’s praise for U.S. bishops for what he called their “generous commitment’” to helping victims of clergy sex abuse drew a swift, angry rebuke from advocates who say the bishops acted only under the threat of lawsuits.
Pates described the pope’s comments on the sexual abuse scandals as encouraging. He said that no one is trying to justify sexual abuse but that strides have been made in tackling the issue.
Earlier in the day, the pope had been welcomed to the United States in an elaborate ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.
All three Nebraska House members were there for the welcome, along with Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Chuck Grassley of Iowa also attended.
The Rev. Tom Fangman of Sacred Heart Parish in Omaha was there as a guest of Rep. Brad Ashford of Omaha and will be in the chamber for the pope’s address to Congress on Thursday.
Fangman said he was in awe to be part of such a historic event.
He brought a bag of medals from home that his friends, relatives and parishioners asked him to carry with him so they could be blessed by the pope.
He said he has received hundreds of requests, some from grade school friends and as far away as Italy, asking him to pray for them while in the presence of the pope.
“I feel like I want to be an instrument in any way I can be,” he said.
He praised the pope for his humility and a straightforward emphasis on the responsibility to care for the marginalized, the poor and the outcast.
“His whole manner is rooted in love,” he said. “I love what he’s saying about climate change and about that we owe this to future generations, to look at the Earth and to care for, to love what God’s given us.”
The pope’s call to take action on climate change has riled some conservatives, but Fischer and Grassley downplayed any political disconnect with the pope.
“I think his message connects with all of us,” Fischer said. “All of us understand the need to care for each other. All of us understand that we need to care for the least who are among us, that we need to care for our world, our planet. That we need to respect life, that we need to respect religious freedom and liberty.”
World-Herald staff writer Michael O’Connor contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.