Immediately after touching down in Philadelphia Saturday, Pope Francis headed straight to the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul where he asked the church, “What about you?”
It’s the same question Pope Leo XII asked St. Katharine Drexel during a private audience in 1887. Two years after that transformative moment, the Philadelphia-born heiress gave up her wealth and devoted her life to the church as a nun.
Many sisters sat in the pews Saturday morning as Pope Francis celebrated Mass for more than 2,000 people including bishops, priests, religious and lay members of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Through a translator, the pope spoke directly to women as he urged lay people to become more active in the church in “a rapidly changing society.”
“In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, made and continue to make in the life of our communities,” he said.
The statement came as a pleasant surprise to JoAnn Holden, a parish secretary from Bucks County.
“I don’t know who’s ever said or verbalized that much,” Holden said. “Coming from Pope Francis, yes, I’m very grateful to him for how he appreciates everybody and calls all of us to do more and you can’t help but want to do more once you hear it from him.”
Holden and her colleague, Audrey Wilson, sat in the front row of the Basilica’s side chapel where Pope Francis made his exit at the end of Mass. Wilson, who was already moved by his homily, said the experience was made complete when she greeted the pope and touched him.
“Being able to come right in contact with him, too, was just such an encouragement and just gives us the great enthusiasm to continue the work of the church in his spirit where we are in our little part of the world,” said Wilson, who serves as director of parish service at St. Frances Cabrini in Fairless Hills, Bucks County.
Pope Francis’ message comes at a time when the church is relying more on lay leaders to make up for a shortage of priests — and that’s at churches that have remained open despite not having clergy to lead them.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has also seen a slew of parish and parochial school closures in recent years. Schools are places where women religious have held positions of leadership in the church.
“A lot of our ancestors have done a lot to build up the church in Philadelphia through schools, so I just felt really proud when he spoke to us,” said Immaculate Heart Sister Mary Beth Coyle.
Another woman in the crowd offered a response to Pope Francis’ call for action.
Nancy Lemus, of Newcastle, Delaware, sat in the front row of the side chapel with her son, Christopher. The 10-year-old is confined to a wheelchair, the result of a triad of medical conditions: spastic quadroplegia, cerebral palsy and dystonia.
When the pope entered the chapel, he moved immediately toward Christopher and an 8-year-old friend with similar disabilities.
“He grabbed him by his head, gave him the cross on his forehead, gave him a kiss and gave him a blessing,” said Lemus, who also shook the pontiff’s hand.
At first, she was speechless and wanted to cry. Their tickets to the Mass had been arranged somewhat last-minute by the Make A Wish Foundation and Lemus was not expecting to make a close encounter with the pope as part of the experience.
But when he reached for her hand, a stunned Lemus managed to give Pope Francis a message: to advocate for other children who are not as fortunate as her son.
“We’re very lucky to be in the states, but we just came back from Mexico and we got to see children in the same condition as Christopher half his size, no medical equipment,” Lemus said. “I did tell him to please bring awareness to the life of our children that they deserve, life in dignity.”