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Black Catholics anxiously await Pope Francis

By Courtne Dixon/Howard University News Service
On September 27, 2015
Reverend Patrick Smith

Reverend Patrick Smith of St. Augustine
Roman Catholic Church looks forward to
Pope Francis’ visit.
Credit: saintaugustine-dc.org

Pope Francis, possibly the nation’s most respected and admired holy man, arrives in the nation’s capital next week to much fanfare and adulation, and among the throngs will be scores of local Black Catholics anxious to see the man who has won so much of their approval.

At St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, the city’s largest and oldest predominantly African-American Catholic Church, parishioners praised the pope for his humility, his compassion and his stands on issues.

The Rev. Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine for 11 years, said he has seen mostly positive assessments of Francis from his members.

“He has made a very positive impact,” said Smith, a priest for 25 years and head of one of the 22 predominately Black parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington. “I don’t know if there is any person universally liked by everyone, but they are struck by his integrity.”

“He consistently addresses the needs of minority communities around the world whether it’s showing up at prisons or hospitals, speaking for the rights of migrants or the poor. He has been very vocal about the abuses of capitalism that leave the marginalized on the lower economic scale behind.”

The pope, who is also visiting New York and Philadelphia while in the U.S., will arrive in the District Sept. 22, and have a welcoming ceremony at the White House followed by a private meeting with President Barack Obama, then a mid-day prayer at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew of Apostle. On Thursday, he will address a joint session of Congress and visit St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Some 3,000 families attend St. Augustine, according to Smith. Althea Davis is part of the church’s family. She said she believes the pope, who once worked as a bar bouncer and as a janitor before becoming a priest, has touched people in a way that no pope has done before.

“It hard to put into words,” said Davis. “He has reached out to embrace people in a way no one has ever had. He will show that he is no better than anyone else. We were talking in my office trying to see if he will feed the homeless. I said sure he is, because that is what he does.”

As pope, Francis has been known for his humility. During his tenure, he has kissed the feet of prisoners, decided to live in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace and chosen to ride a less lavish car than prior popes.

His stances have drawn broad approval in the U.S.

A Quinnipiac University poll published early this month showed that 66 percent of Americans have either a “favorable” or “very favorable” view of the pope. He was particularly popular among Catholics (87 percent) and also scored high marks with Protestants (61 percent) and people who follow “no religion” (63 percent), according to the poll.

Pam Fiawoo of St. Augustine said Francis was the man the church needed at this moment following more than a decade of religious turmoil, including financial and sexual scandals.

“He is a pope perfect for this time,” said Fiawoo. “I think he is the pope that is filled with compassion not to say other popes are not. Like I said, this is the pope of this day, this age, and these times.”

From Francis’ more open acceptance of homosexuality to his affirmation of the “Big Bang Theory,” to his changes regarding annulment he has departed dramatically from his predecessors and some Catholic traditions.

Barbara Walker, 85, is one of the St. Augustine parishioners who admires Francis’ commitment to change.

“You have to look at his background,” said Walker. “He’s a Jesuit, and he took that pledge of being a Jesuit. Their pledge is to do what he what he doing. He is just bringing to light, how do I say this, things that need some adjustment.”

Francis is the first Jesuit pope. Jesuits are committed to deepening understanding, answering the call for service of faith, promoting justice and having a dialogue with different cultures and religion, according to Catholic teaching.

Smith declined to compare Francis with previous popes.

“It is not about comparing him to other popes,” the priest said. “He is unique.”

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