The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States was historic on many levels. Even now, weeks after he returned to Rome, the images of his encounters in Washington, New York and Philadelphia remain vivid and moving. Few will forget his silent prayer and humble bow before the South Pool at the 9/11 Memorial in New York, to cite just one example.
As important as the visuals are, his words are especially poignant. Even before he landed in the United States, Francis spoke of the need for the Catholic Church to be more collaborative and open to dialogue. He might not have known at the time, but collaboration and dialogue of the highest order already was the hallmark of the massive planning effort undertaken to stage his U.S. visit.
From the moment his long rumored visit became official, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered together representatives of the three archdioceses on the Pope’s itinerary. The message was simple – “Let’s work together and help each other.” To be sure, each city had its own ideas and agenda, looking to highlight some particular aspect of the Church’s mission. It would have been easier, in many respects, if each went its own way and crafted a unique and free-standing method for staging a program of multiple events in each town. Inevitably, that also would have led to a disjointed process characterized by conflicting protocols and mixed messages. In the end, each city benefited greatly from the counsel, questions and suggestions shared through regular meetings and weekly conference calls convened and chaired by the USCCB.
Collaboration in support of the visit went far further. New York serves as an excellent example. There, a senior Archdiocesan official reporting directly to Cardinal Timothy Dolan bore overall responsibility for visit planning. Given the role, he could also have exercised authority over all aspects of preparation and the infinite number of component details that comprise an event of this magnitude. Instead, from the outset, a process of dialogue, engagement and cooperation was established. Professionals with unique experience, capabilities and qualifications were assembled. Information was shared on everything from elements of the liturgy, for example, how to offer the sacrament of confession in a sports arena, to the overwhelming complexities of security. Staff of Madison Square Garden, the 9/11 Memorial, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Catholic Charities, and Our Lady Queen of Angels, a tiny elementary school in Harlem, were invited to make recommendations, freely comment on and critique ideas, and guide the evolution of plans for the overall visit, not just their individual piece of the program.
The result was a massive team of people, ultimately numbering in the hundreds if all participants were counted, most of whom were on a first name basis by the time the Holy Father landed at JFK Airport.
Anyone who has experience with very large scale events will tell you the only thing certain is that problems will arise. Because of the atmosphere of collaboration established at the outset, no problem became a crisis, no challenge became a fit of pique, no obstacle became insurmountable. While the theme of the visit to the city was “A Journey of Faith through the Heart of New York,” behind the scenes, the theme of visit planners could very well have been “We will make it work.”
Pope Francis called upon the Church to be more collaborative than ever in its ministry, not building walls but “breaking them down.” His guidance was adopted in the preparation and staging of a visit that touched millions of people around the world. No single entity, agency, individual or organization can legitimately take credit for the success of the Holy Father’s trip to the United States. It was truly a monumentally collaborative effort of which all who participated can be justly proud. Perhaps Pope Francis, without whom the visit and the ethic would never have happened, today is especially pleased.