A number of central San Joaquin Valley faith leaders and families will be on the East Coast next week to help welcome Pope Francis to the United States – a historic visit to include addresses before Congress and the United Nations and the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, founder of California’s Spanish missions.
I feel very, very blessed. God is great.
Pope Francis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday will be preceded in the Valley with an interfaith candlelight prayer vigil in Fresno on Monday and a Saturday event in Kern County.
Catholic leaders with the Diocese of Fresno say Pope Francis is coming to the U.S. foremost to attend the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia next weekend.
Anna Garcia of St. Joaquim Catholic Church in Madera will be among those attending the large gathering – a precursor to a meeting of bishops in Rome next month to discuss family – with several other families from her church.
“I just feel so blessed and so emotional,” Garcia says. “It’s overwhelming.”
She says Pope Francis is making a “big change” through his humility and kindness.
Garcia says the trip to the East Coast with her husband and three children will be worth it “just to be surrounded by that emotion,” even if they don’t see Pope Francis.
The Rev. Dan Avila, director of vocations for the Diocese of Fresno and chaplain for the Serra Club of Fresno, says the pope’s 17 addresses over five days in three cities – Washington, New York and Philadelphia – are bound to resonate with many people in the Valley and throughout the world.
“He’s coming pastorally to visit Catholics, but he’s speaking to everyone about the things that are important to all of us – respecting each other as human beings, caring for the poor, caring for the environment, showing mercy,” Avila says.
Avila will be among more than half a dozen clergy from the Diocese of Fresno, including Bishop Armando Ochoa, to attend Serra’s canonization Mass in D.C. on Wednesday – the first time a saint has been canonized on American soil – and will be the Valley’s sole diocesan representative on Thursday to hear Pope Francis address a joint session of Congress, something no other pope has done.
He’ll challenge our legislators to be more generous and more broad-minded as they look at their legislation to include more people and to be more just. He’s all about justice.
Jim Grant, director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno
Ochoa says his schedule only permits him to attend the canonization, along with a midday prayer and lunch with other bishops and the pope before the Mass.
“It is my hope that all of our experiences of this extraordinary papal visit to the United States will continue to cultivate a deeper desire to embrace and live out the call of the Gospel, which is the foundation of all of Pope Francis’ messages,” Ochoa wrote in a statement to The Bee. “To live and love with others as Christ Jesus teaches us through his word and example.”
In anticipation of the pope’s U.S. visit, the Diocese of Fresno and Faith in Action in Kern County will host a kickoff event from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday at Garces Memorial High School in Bakersfield.
On Monday, the diocese and Faith in Community will host an interfaith candlelight prayer vigil at 7:30 p.m. on the steps of St. John’s Cathedral of Fresno. Speakers will also include leaders outside the Christian faith.
He’s very much a world leader, a faith leader that crosses traditions.
Thomas Weiler, lead organizer with Faith in Community
Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel in Fresno will be among those speaking. He said interfaith partners working together can “move mountains in the pursuit of justice for our world and all of its inhabitants.
“I pray that the mission of Pope Francis will continue to successfully lift up the downtrodden, heal our environment, and bring people together in love and harmony.”
The director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, Reza Nekumanesh, another speaker, says with more than a billion Catholics in the world, Pope Francis is a world leader, not just a religious leader.
“As a person of any faith, or of no faith at all, one can admire his call on us to care for our planet, to care for those who till the land, those who are voiceless, the powerless, the poor,” Nekumanesh said. “We have to admire his call for social justice work, as he said, not as an option but an obligation.”
Human dignity must never be subjected to economics that enslaves people.
The Rev. Dan Avila
Jim Grant, director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, hopes people take advantage of the pope’s visit to gather and reflect on the messages to come.
“There are unlimited possibilities for people to meet as small groups, as prayer communities or as parish communities.”
Grant will be attending the Festival of Families at the end of the World Meeting of Families with delegates from Fresno’s Faith in Community. He, and Thomas Weiler, lead organizer with Faith in Community, will also participate in PICO’s Faith Matters in America Summit in Philadelphia next week that will be attended by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice.
The pope won’t just be sharing thoughts during his visit, Grant says, he’ll be “showing us how to act” through his example. Also on the pope’s American agenda: visiting immigrants, disadvantaged students and prisoners.
Serra’s canonization will be a focal point for many local clergy.
The decision to make Serra a saint has come with its share of controversy surrounding the treatment of Native Americans in California’s missions, but Avila says people often forget that Serra also worked to protect natives from Spanish conquest.
Was he a perfect human being? No. Was he a saint, a man motivated by the love of God to share that faith with others? Yes.
The Rev. Dan Avila of the canonization of Father Junípero Serra
Avila says many consider Serra the “apostle of California.” That he left a comfortable job as a professor close to the age of 50 to travel thousands of miles to establish a string of missions makes his accomplishment all the more incredible, he says.
“The missions have become centers of commerce and life in California, from San Luis Obispo all the way down to San Diego.”
Weiler is looking forward the visit. He hopes that he and others come back from the trip more inspired to work for justice in Fresno and “challenge the systems of exclusion that exist.”
“This pope has modeled in his own being a sense of compassion, especially for the disadvantaged.”
Weiler says Pope Francis is being guided by “pure joy.”
“He’s not being guided by fear or caution or control; he’s just letting the joy of the Gospel, the joy of God, really lead him in new ways. That is just really inspiring to people.”
At a glance
Events celebrating Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.
Prayer vigil: The Diocese of Fresno and Faith in Community will host an interfaith candlelight prayer vigil at 7:30 p.m. Monday at St. John’s Cathedral, 2814 Mariposa St., Fresno. People are asked to bring candles and ensure wax doesn’t fall on the steps of the cathedral.
Watch from the Valley: Bishop Armando Ochoa says people can tune into KNXT Catholic Television for live broadcasting and online streaming of the pope’s visit. It will be rebroadcast the following week. St. Anthony Retreat Center, 43816 Sierra Drive, Three Rivers, is hosting “listening gatherings” to watch rebroadcasts of Pope Francis at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Fundraiser: The Serra Club of Fresno, which supports seminarians studying to become priests, will show a short video about Father Junípero Serra after a fundraiser lunch at the Diocese of Fresno on Wednesday. Space is limited. More information is available by calling 559-431-9673.
Go to D.C.: Congressman Devin Nunes on Friday announced that his office has some standing-room-only tickets for constituents to watch Pope Francis’ address to Congress broadcast on large screens on the West Lawn of the Capitol. After his speech, the pope is expected to make an appearance on the Speaker’s Balcony. Call 202-225-2523 to inquire about tickets.