Photo: Chris Sparks

For Faith and Freedom

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By Chris Sparks (Oct 20, 2015)
I had to tell this story.

Yes, the papal visit was a good three weeks ago now. Yes, it's being overshadowed in the media by the ordinary synod on the family going on in Rome right now. Yes, it may seem like we've moved on.

But too many things came together too well for this story not to be told.

I was at Independence Mall, walking along behind one of many rows of pilgrims, seeing if I could get any closer to where the Holy Father would be speaking. Unfortunately, at a certain point, the crowds became impenetrable; the security barricades looped back on themselves in such a fashion as to keep us all very firmly planted. So I started walking back and forth along the barricade line, interviewing pilgrims.

That's when I met the Wu family, parishioners at Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church in Philadelphia's Chinatown, peering through the crowd at the barricade, hoping to see Pope Francis.

At first glance, the Chinese family of five seemed like simply one more group of pilgrims. But as I spoke to them, I came to realize they actually summed up everything Pope Francis was there to say.

Let me set the scene for you.

The place: Independence Mall, the great stretches of green and strips of concrete sidewalk reaching outward from Independence Hall, the building where the Founding Fathers debated and voted on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. One of the iconic physical landmarks of the development of our understanding of human rights, Independence Hall was going to host Pope Francis and a massive crowd of dignitaries, pilgrims, media, and ordinary Philadelphians, there to hear the Holy Father, himself a son of immigrants, speak to a nation of immigrants in an Archdiocese headed by the first Native American Catholic Archbishop, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput, OFMCap.

The occasion: Pope Francis had arrived in Philadelphia for the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families, the last stop on a papal visit to the U.S. He'd had certain recurring themes throughout the visit, including care for the least among us, especially the refugee and the immigrant. In part, this was occasioned by Europe's ongoing refugee crisis caused by the violence and turmoil in the Middle East. It's been called repeatedly the "worst refugee crisis since World War II."

Earlier in the day, as the Holy Father was flown by helicopter from downtown Manhattan to the waiting airplane for his flight to Philadelphia, Cardinal Dolan of New York was able to point out to him the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, an especially poignant moment, given the Holy Father's repeated comments, both during the papal visit and throughout his pontificate, about the plight of immigrants around the world.

Here, he was going to address the right to religious liberty, speaking from Abraham Lincoln's podium. Sometimes called the "first freedom," religious liberty has been much on the minds and hearts of Americans, Middle Eastern Christians, and Catholics around the world today.

The Mystical Body of Christ has been undergoing what Vatican reporter John Allen has called "the global war on Christians" in a book of the same name, an unprecedentedly large number of attacks, both violent and otherwise, against Christians because of their faith and the ways in which they live it out. One of the offending countries is China, where a "patriotic" church, not officially connected to the Holy See, is favored by the government, while the "underground" Catholic Church endures the "disappearance" of its bishops, priests, and faithful, meets in secret, and abides in faithful communion with the Holy See.

And so there, among the crowd, stood the Wus.

They were there for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, explained Laura. "You have to fly all the way to Rome to see him, and he's coming here."

Laura translated on behalf of her mother, Jinfang. "He's the leader in the Catholic religion, and he's coming to Philly. She'll probably only see him once in her lifetime; it's probably never going to happen again."

The whole family is Catholic, Laura explained, going back to her great-great grandparents. A missionary came to their village in China — the whole village converted.

And that's why their family emigrated to the U.S., their father, Guoping, first in the 90s, then Jinfang in 1998, followed by the children in 2001.

"There's a freedom in the U.S. to practice any religion," said Laura. "When we were back in China, we were practicing Catholicism underground. You don't go to church every Sunday like you're in U.S. There's like no church. It's like at somebody's house. That's why we're here, for religion."

As I spoke to them, it felt like they represented a whole host of immigrants, past and present, who had fled impossible situations abroad to come to the U.S. for freedom and opportunity. Here, at Independence Mall; here, in one of the historic centers of the whole American experiment in democracy; here, the whole American heritage of religious liberty was summed up in one family's living presence for Pope Francis' address.

Pope Francis had a special message for the Wu family, as well as for all the immigrants and descendants of immigrants in the crowd like them. Indeed, it's a message for all of us who are descended from immigrants to the U.S. who had come seeking freedom and a better life in the New World. So many of us, after all, are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants — Pope Francis himself is the son of two Italian parents, come to Argentina in order to escape the looming menace of a fascist regime, pursuing freedom and opportunity for their families.

Here, then, from one child of immigrants to us all:

Among us today are members of America's large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States. I greet all of you with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood. You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.

May we all, recent immigrants and descendants of immigrants, contribute to the renewal of society through living our faith and sharing God's love in our families, our communities, and our country.

And may God bless America.

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