Pope Francis made quite the splash in the United States this week, with unprecedented media coverage and more than 20 events in his six-day whirlwind American adventure. It also came with some tangible outcomes: U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner resigned after hearing Francis’s speech to Congress, and — inspired by Francis’s leadership — 10 House Republicans created a resolution acknowledging that climate change is man-made. All these actions can be chalked up to the “Francis effect”. But to reduce the Francis effect to mere politics is to miss the radical personal transformation that the pope calls for.
I had the opportunity this past week to walk with Francis throughout his journeys in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. While the media was justifiably focused on Francis’ meeting at the White House, with Congress, and at the United Nations, I found that it was the personal encounters he had with everyday people that were most poignant.
More than the “big” speeches, this trip was about hugging an inmate, getting a note from an immigrant child, and blessing a baby dressed up as the pope. When he visits with regular people, Francis communicates the central theme of his papacy: love. In the end, isn’t love simply looking someone else in the face and saying, “I choose to be here with you”?
During my sleep-deprived adventure, I saw my church come alive, with millions gathered together in song in the city streets because they have renewed hope. I had strangers tell me that they’re giving the church a second chance. I saw young people who’ve lost faith in governments and institutions in tears because Francis gives them something to believe in. Perhaps this is a bit strong, but more than a political shift, I witnessed personal conversion.
Do I think that everything will miraculously change? No, I don’t. I don’t think that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform tomorrow. I don’t think that scandal in the church will disappear overnight. And I don’t expect the pews to be magically full next Sunday. But I do believe that for the millions who encountered Francis face-to-face and from afar, their lives will change. They’ll see brotherhood in the eyes of a homeless person on the street corner. They’ll enter into dialogue with someone who disagrees. Instead of asking what someone does, they’ll ask who they are. They’ll start to see each person as a gift from God, as someone with a name, a face, and a future.
In short: the Francis Effect at full measure.