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Chicago area priests inspired by Pope Francis' speech to Congress

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WASHINGTON — It’s been a remarkable two days for the Rev. Mike Nacius, the pastor at Infant Jesus of Prague in south suburban Flossmoor.

He saw Pope Francis three times: On Wednesday, at his arrival ceremony on the south lawn of the White House; at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Junipero Serra was canonized; and on Thursday, at a prime spot outside the West Front of the Capitol where Francis greeted the crowd.

“Being that close was a gift,” Nacius told me.

I asked him about the impact on him as a priest.

“It’s such a rich experience that I am going to have to continue to pray over it,” said Nacius, a priest since May 1989.

“I mean people of the parish were jumping up for joy when they became aware of me being able to go on this trip. My mother is ecstatic as well, so that is a whole other story,” he said. “But just carrying the support of the parish, and then carrying the message of the pope back to them, it will impact me and the community for a while.”

Each House member got to bring one guest to the pope’s speech. In his heavily accented English, Francis brought peace to the polarized chamber, at least for one day. He spoke in the well of the House, under a beaming Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, both Catholics.

The words chisled above them are “In God We Trust,” particularly apt when, for the first time, a pope addressed a joint meeting of Congress.

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., was responsible for getting access to the White House and Capitol events for Nacius.

For the past 28 years, Brother James Gaffney has been president of Lewis University, a Catholic school in west suburban Romeoville. He watched the pope speak from the House gallery, where he was the guest of Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill.

What did it mean to him to be in the chamber?

“Even though I have a vow of poverty and live relatively simply,” the pope’s speech about mission and personal and social responsibility led him to realize that “I can do a lot more,” Gaffney said.

At Lewis, “We are terrific in encouraging our students to do service; I don’t go with them very much. I’ve got to do that, because it will say something more powerful to them about what the meaning of their service is and how important that is.

“The university reaches out to the poor through the president, but I am not engaged in the direct service to the poor,” he said. “I’ve got to find some moments to do that.”

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The pope called for ending the death penalty and curbing the sales of “deadly weapons,” issues that resonated especially for one of the most famous priests from Chicago, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the senior pastor at St. Sabina, 1210 W 78th Pl.

To be present not just for a pope, but for the populist Pope Francis “means everything,” said Pfleger, who was in the chamber as a guest of Rep. Kelly.

“He represents to me a true breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church and I think also for the world,” he said.

Witnessing the speech in person was meaningful, said Pfleger, who marks his 40th year as a priest this year.

“To be in the room, I can tell my people in my church, I’m not into live-streaming, I’m into being there . . . watching his mannerisms, even as he was speaking and the rest. . . . It was a blessing, just to be there,” Pfleger said.

The Rev. Robert Oldershaw, pastor emeritus at St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, was in the chamber as the guest of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

“I’m still up in the clouds,” said Oldershaw, going on 54 years as a priest. “It was an awesome experience.”

“What moved me so much is this is such a profoundly simple man . . . so gentle, and yet let me tell you, he is tough,” he said.

Oldershaw hesitated at first about coming to Washington because he was supposed to be en route to Bolivia with a medical mission group organized by Solidarity Bridge, an Evanston organization that trains and equips the medical personnel in Bolivia and Paraguay.

He asked the director of the mission what he should do. “She said go and bring the spirit of Pope Francis to Bolivia,” he said.

As he heard Francis speak, he said he thought, “Wow, that powered me up for my trip to Bolivia.

The Rev. Marco Mercado, a native of Mexico, is the rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in north suburban Des Plaines and was the guest of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., whose main issue is immigration reform.

“It was a privilege to be there and to listen to what he wanted to do,” Mercado said.

With the standing ovations, Mercado said it was his sense that, “It was not a lot of politicians trying to be nice.”

As a priest, “I personally feel very challenged by him,” he said.

How?

“To be more humble, to really make sure that my actions will back up my word, so I am not just a man of words when I preach. Everyone can know that what I say is what I live,” Mercado said.

Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., an evangelical Christian, said he felt a personal “connection” in listening to the pope. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said the atmosphere in the chamber was “just electric.”

I asked Kelly how long the pope’s invocation of the Golden Rule will last in the House, where rancor is the norm.

Said Kelly, “I’ll see when we go on the floor today.”

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