WASHINGTON — Making the sign of the cross, Pope Francis quickly blessed the meal and announced “buon appetito!”
But instead of beginning lunch, many crowded in on the pope with cell phones high in the air for photos. For 15 minutes, the pontiff shook hands, high-fived and took photos with the least powerful in the nation’s capital while the meal he had just blessed sat at the tables forgotten.
On the third and final day of his visit to Washington, Pope Francis visited the homeless at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington next door, not long after addressing Congress.
Dwight Locke, 55, who lives in the charities’ Mulumba House, was among those picked to see the pope. “I look back at my track record, I used to drink … and now I’m five years clean,” he said. “God has been blessing me.”
On the streets outside of St. Patrick’s, a tent covered hundreds of homeless clients of the Catholic Charities, a social services provider that helps up to 120,000 people annually in several shelters around the city, according to board chairman Douglas Donatelli.
“It means a tremendous amount that (the pope’s) associating himself with charity and taking care of people less fortunate, and that’s what Catholic Charities is all about,” said Donatelli. “To have their hard work recognized by the pope means a lot for … all of us.”
“This energizes the organization in a way that nothing else could,” he said, “and it will hopefully get the word out too, for more volunteers and more recognition so we can help more people.”
Locke’s temporary home is designed to help residents find employment and sobriety. He now works at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous local eatery, and said he feels fortunate to live in the conditions that he lives in, to have been chosen by program managers to attend the lunch, and to have his 30 year-old son’s support.
“I’m glad to know I have his love and support,” Locke said. “I’m just doing me but just to know I’ve got my son in my corner’s a good feeling.”
Helping those less fortunate is something the pontiff is known for championing, and his genuine concern for the needy was clear when he stopped by the luncheon and mingled with the people. He was surrounded by a crowd for his entire visit, but made sure to personally greet as many people as possible.
The morning’s brief papal stop started with music from a combined school choir, to enthusiastic applause from the lunch-goers.
Angela Ford, 45, lives in Catholic Charities’ Nativity Shelter for Women. She said she came from a great home with great parents. Her father is a Baptist pastor and her mother, who raised 40 children through foster care, passed away in 2005.
“Just to be a part of history, just to see (the pope), that he had a safe trip and was able to be a part of history” was amazing, Ford said.
Carlotta Colman, 61, is divorced and lives in the charity’s Mount Carmel house and said she is continuing her education for an associate’s degree in medical office administration. She chose the field because “I like saving lives and giving,” she said. She was born in Washington and has a daughter, 32, and twin sons, both 31.
“Getting to know the pope and seeing him in person, (to) appreciate being able to see him,” Colman said, “it’s a blessing, and (so is) continuing my education.”
Eight-year-old Steven Walle, who was able to give the pope a high-five and a letter, was wearing a #WalkWithFrancis bracelet. Steven said of the pope: “He’s awesome,” and he likes the papal whites the pope wears because his favorite color is white, too.
The letter Walle hand-delivered to Pope Francis said: “Dear pope my name is Steven, can you please pray for me and my mother, for a job and a better life, p.s. Steven.”
His mother, Nichole Walle, is a former client of Catholic Charities. It helped her to get back on her feet, she said, and helped her get a new place to live.
Raul Fernandez, vice chairman of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the group that owns the Verizon Center, the Wizards and the Capitals, was partly responsible for ensuring Steven’s letter reached the pope.
“Once it was written, Raul did most of the encouragement,” Walle said. She just helped her son spell some of the words, she said.
“People had been told to sit down but they couldn’t contain themselves,” said Jean-Marie Fernandez, wife of Raul Fernandez, referring to the pope’s visit. “If you watched his face as he entered the crowd his smile got bigger and bigger the farther in he got … you can see why he’s called the people’s pope.”
This last event in Washington was a “great send off and a gift,” said Jean-Marie Fernandez.