By Kelly Seegers
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As Pope Francis boarded the plane after his visit to Washington a year ago, he carried with him a book containing more than 100,000 pledges that people in the Archdiocese of Washington had made to “Walk With Francis” by either praying, serving or acting to improve their community.
Leading up to the pope’s visit, the Archdiocese of Washington, along with Catholic Charities, launched the Walk With Francis initiative, which encouraged people to prepare for the pope’s visit by following in his example of love and mercy.
People were asked to make pledges to pray regularly for the pontiff, to serve by caring for those in need and supporting charitable efforts, or to act to promote human life and dignity, justice and peace, family life and religious freedom, care for creation and the common good.
In the months that followed, individuals, schools, parishes and other organizations made pledges to help their community in different ways. Many people posted their pledges on social media, using #WalkwithFrancis. The day before the pope arrived in Washington Sept. 22, 2015, the Walk With Francis pledges topped the 100,000 mark. The Archdiocese of Washington then compiled all of the pledges into a 400-page book that they presented to the pope as a parting gift when he left in late afternoon Sept. 24, 2015.
At Little Flower School in Great Mills, Maryland, each class decided for itself how they were going to Walk With Francis. Students in the pre-kindergarten class pledged to act like Jesus toward one another, the second grade pledged to do an act of kindness every day, the fifth grade pledged to plant a school garden, the seventh grade pledged to pray the prayer of St. Francis every day, and the eighth grade pledged to do guided meditations on mercy.
Patricia Peters, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade religion, saw the pledges that her students made go beyond the time leading up to Pope Francis’ visit. Both the seventh and the eighth grade continued their prayers and meditations regularly throughout the year. In addition, two students from her seventh-grade class were inspired by the prayer of St. Francis to start a pet supply drive that now runs annually from the beginning of the year until the blessing of the pets on St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day.
“It was very affirming for me to be a part of it, to watch my students grow through the experience and to be able to be a part of the larger church in that way,” Peters told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese. “It definitely strengthened my faith to be a part of that with my students.”
Several prominent figures in the Washington area also signed the Walk With Francis Pledge. Katie Ledecky, the five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist who attends Little Flower Parish in Bethesda, Maryland, pledged to help Shepherd’s Table, Catholic Charities and Bikes for the World. John Carlson, a member of the Washington Capitals, pledged to “continue to work on my faith and become a better father every day.”
Erik Salmi, director of communications for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, said these pledges “helped bring some great energy to the campaign.”
At The Catholic University of America, students were encouraged to sign pledges after the opening Mass of the school year. Many of the students, such as James Walsh, still wear their “Walk With Francis” wristbands as a reminder of the pledges they made that day.
“I like to keep it on as a good reminder … to stay humble,” Walsh said.
Catholic University also had a “Serve With Francis Day,” where hundreds of students went out to serve their local community.
Salmi said the effects of the Walk With Francis initiative are hard to measure, because it is similar to when “you drop a stone in the middle of a pond and the ripples go pretty far and wide.” However, he said he did know that all of the Catholic Charities programs benefited from having volunteers that joined them.
The good deeds did not end when the pope left. Since his visit, more than 10,000 additional pledges have been made. Through the Drive with Francis initiative, the Fiat that Pope Francis rode in is being used to help those in need. There is even a new hashtag, #DrivewithFrancis, so that people can share on social media what they are doing with the papal Fiat.
Two Fiats were used by Pope Francis during his visit to Washington and later the cars were donated to the archdiocese by Pope Francis and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The proceeds of the auction of one of the cars are being donated to various charities.
A private donor who wanted to remain anonymous is letting the archdiocese use the second Fiat via the #DrivewithFrancis initiative to promote good works, activities and social service programs aiding the local community.
The car has been parked at various events in the area, collecting food for a community food bank or baby items for a crisis pregnancy center in Washington. It was present at the Washington Nationals’ Faith Day, where people could line up to make breakfast bags for the homeless served by Catholic Charities’ Cup of Joe program. After the game, 550 Cup of Joe bags were delivered to Adam’s Place shelter, which is run by Catholic Charities.
“That seems pretty perfect for me in summarizing how His Holiness would want the car to be used,” Salmi said.
For the first anniversary of the pope’s visit to Washington, Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of Washington launched a “Walk With Francis 2.0” initiative for the Sept. 24-25 weekend, when people could renew the pledge or make a new one if they had not done it before.
Parishes in the archdiocese planned to have pledge cards for parishioners to fill out during Mass and bring up to the altar.
– – –
Seegers is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.