February 5, 2016, Washington, DC – It seems to be common knowledge in the U.S. these days that the two sides of the Congressional aisle – Democrats and Republicans – will never come together and agree on anything. That was proven false on the evening of February 3, when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Speaker of the House; Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Leader, and some 70 Congressional leaders came together with Catholic Charities USA to discuss what can be done to help people who are most in need.
With those present at a planned reception at the Capitol, Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, President of Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), said she took the opportunity to discuss “how we might work together on poverty alleviation, criminal justice, and mental health issues.” She offered the services of Catholic Charities to “be ‘Switzerland’ and invite both sides to address what we might do to help the most vulnerable among us.” She was gratified that everyone in the room spoke together about ways to help those most in need.
Sister Donna, former Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, is the first female president and CEO of CCUSA. CCUSA is a national network of 164 local agencies that serve their local community through such means as providing shelter for the homeless, feeding the hungry, welcoming refugees, and meeting the needs of the vulnerable population.
September 28, 2015, Washington, DC – People throughout the United States – whether Catholic or not -- found the historic visit of Pope Francis to the United States to be a joyful experience, inspirational and compelling. But Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, who witnessed first-hand many of the events on September 23 and 24 in Washington, DC and New York City, found the experience to be “an incredible time for the Church” both nationally and personally.
Sister Donna, formerly the Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, was invited to many of the events of the Pope’s visit because of her role as President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, “a national network of agencies serving poor and vulnerable persons and families.” On September 27, the day that Pope Francis was winding down his U.S. visit, Sister Donna had the opportunity to reflect on her experience of the historic event.
Sister Donna was present on September 23 for the official welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis on the White House lawn, the Mid-day Prayer Service with the U.S. Bishops at St. Matthew Cathedral, and the canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra. On September 24, she was present for his visit to St. Patrick Church and Catholic Charities, during which the Pope visited homeless people during their lunch. On September 25, in New York City, Sister Donna was present for the Pope’s address to the United Nations General Assembly and his visit to immigrants at Queen of Angels school in East Harlem. A special surprise for Sister Donna came when she was invited to a 6:00 a.m. personal visit with Pope Francis at the Nunciature in New York – before his departure to Philadelphia.
She said Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) was invited to participate in these events by both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the White House because “Catholic Charities is really doing what the Pope is asking all of us to do – care for those who live at the margins and are the most vulnerable. …They wanted us to be part of this visit in a very visible manner.”
Sister Donna said she was impressed by the greeting that Pope Francis received at the White House. She watched the ceremony from the vantage point of special seating for 1,000 people, while the entire crowd numbered about 11,000. “I’d never been to a welcoming ceremony for a visiting head of state,” she said. “The President’s speech and the Pope’s address were remarkably similar in tone and mood and content.” She encouraged people to read the texts of both side by side. “It was powerful to hear them both together.”
During the Pope’s talk at St. Matthew Cathedral at a Mid-day Prayer Service that followed, Sister Donna heard healing words for U.S. women religious – who in recent years had suffered from two investigations by the Vatican: the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious, begun in 2009, and a separate investigation of the orthodoxy of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
“His words about how much he loves us and respects us and values us for what we’ve all gone through as women religious – I think that was so amazingly healing for all that we’ve gone through,” Sister Donna said. She added that his words were personally healing for her, since she had been Prioress in 2009 when the Apostolic Visitation began. Pope Francis’ words “put real closure” to that experience, she added.
Sister Donna noted that the carefully laid plans for Catholic Charities’ luncheon for homeless people were never realized. The plan was for Pope Francis to give the blessing and for Sister Donna and Monsignor John Enzler, President of Catholic Charities Washington, DC, to escort the Pope from table to table to greet the people. Instead, she said, Pope Francis bypassed the microphone and came into the midst of the people, and they left their seats and their lunches to greet him, shake his hand, and take pictures of him with their cell phones. Sister Donna and Monsignor Enzler moved out of the way. “We felt it was far more important for those people to have the chance to be with the Pope,” she explained, adding that the visit lasted for about 20 minutes.
In New York, as a guest of the Nuncio from the Holy See to the United Nations, Sister Donna sat in a special section with about 30 people to watch Pope Francis’ address to the U.N. General Assembly. Later that afternoon, she was invited by the Nuncio to a private meeting with the Pope at 6:00 the next morning at the Nunciature in New York. She was among a small group of people who each had a private time with him.
Because of the difference in languages, Sister Donna said, her conversation with Pope Francis was very limited. “He understood that I was thanking him for his care for our work on behalf of people who are poor, and how deeply grateful I was. I also wanted to thank him for what he is doing to heal the hurt of the American Sisters.”
She said her personal encounter with Pope Francis was “very emotional. There’s a kindness and a compassion that he exudes. It’s the way he looks at you. He looks right at you – he smiles. He’s engaged with you. He’s a very approachable person and you feel that you’re in the presence of someone very holy.”
“Some beautiful things happened in Washington and in New York,” Sister Donna said. “People all over, whether Catholic or not, were happy and excited.” She gave the example of taxi cab driver from Pakistan who was going to charge her $62 to take her from the train station to the home of Sister Margaret Ormond. “He had to go out of his way because of the barricades” set up for security throughout the city, Sister Donna explained. “He asked me where I worked and I told him I worked with Catholic Charities,” she said. When she arrived at Sister Margaret’s home, he refused to take payment from Sister Donna and offered the taxi ride as his gift. “That was pretty amazing to me,” she said. “It is indicative of the kind of effects that Pope Francis is having on people regardless of their religious tradition.”
But while the impact has been felt strongly during the visit of Pope Francis, Sister Donna said the key element is how the people of the United States will continue to live out his message after he returns to Rome. “That’s a challenge for all of us,” she said. “What do we do with this in our own lives? What do we do with this as a Congregation? How are our lives going to be different? After he’s gone, we all have to ask ourselves that question: What does this mean for me and how does it change my life?”
She recommends that we sit down with the texts of Pope Francis’ talks and homilies – available from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – and study and pray over them.