Father James Maher said seeing Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., in September is something he will remember for the rest of his life.
Father Maher is president of Niagara University. He attended the papal visit to Washington, D.C., as a guest of Congressman Brian Higgins. Arriving on Sept. 22, he was able to get an early start to the White House where President Barak Obama officially welcomed Pope Francis to the United States on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
"There was just such a positive energy," Father Maher said about the arrival ceremony which was attended by almost 20,000 people. "You could see people from all ways and walks of life coming into the White House so it was pretty amazing to see. There was just such a good energy of people wanting to be there, anticipating what was going to be said, wanting to hear the message of the Holy Father."
Father Maher said the Holy Father has been challenging people and inviting them to a culture of accountability.
"It's really to encounter others and to listen to them as opposed to a culture that he has talked about; that of a throw away culture where people are just treated as objects," Father Maher said. "It is very very consistent with what has been spoken about in various strains of Catholic social thought which is a consistent ethic of life. So it's protecting the environment, caring for the poor and vulnerable, being concerned about inequity and being concerned about the values of family life and protecting human life in all of its forms from the womb to the tomb."
Father Maher said Pope Francis has a wonderful message to give. He said the pope comes across very well and in a way that is inviting, engaging and warm. He said it was good for Catholics in the country to see and hear the leader of the Catholic Church.
"Often times as Catholics, we can take for granted the many positive things the Catholic Church does in society, the wonderful care for institutions, the advocacy of the poor and building faith-based communities," Father Maher said. "In many respects, it's the fabric that holds our society together and so to see that embodied in one person and to hear the president of the U.S. speak about that. It's just wonderful for Catholics to hear if our faith has an impact and what comes back is a resounding yes, our faith does have an impact on the life of the Church. It impacts practicing Catholics and Catholics in general, but it also has a great impact on our own society."
Father Maher believes the pope is trying to get people to be witnesses for Christ. He said the important part of being witnesses is that it is not done by what is said, but is done through actions. He said the challenge, laid out in the Gospel of John, is the question of how great is a person's love.
"It's a great love that the Catholic Church offers to our society and it's wonderful to see that acknowledged and shared and celebrated today," Father Maher said.
Father Maher said it wasn't surprising to see the reactions many people had to Pope Francis. Another thing he enjoyed watching was how often Pope Francis would call people over to himself.
"One of the hallmarks of his papacy has been accessibility," Father Maher said. "That is a wonderful example and I think it is what he is trying to promote structurally in the world; how do we create accessibility for people to sit at the banquet of life. He lives that example by offering gestures of love to people."
Another thing Father Maher enjoyed seeing was what he called the "incredible diversity of Catholicism."
"You see people come from all ways and walks of life, ethnicities and cultures of life and what binds us all together in a positive way is our Catholic faith," he said.
Pope Francis spoke about such things as climate change and immigration. Father Maher said that spirituality and religious values have to speak to the issues of life.
"We're all impacted by the planet we live in," Father Maher said. "We are really called to be stewards of the earth. We are all passing through. How do we leave the planet and help the planet to be in good shape or in even better shape for those who are going to come after us?"
Father Maher said Pope Francis' recent encyclical on caring for creation dealt with one of most challenging questions of life. He said among the first lines in the encyclical is the call to dialogue.
"That is really what he is trying to do," Father Maher said. We're never harmed by opening a dialogue and truly engaging with one another. That is what is most powerful about what the pope is trying to do in writing the encyclical. It is a very significant issue."