While Pope Francis was installed as the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church on Tuesday, University President John J. DeGioia watched proudly among the U.S. presidential delegation to the Vatican.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve the honor,” DeGioia said. “It was an incredible honor to join the vice president and the delegation.”
Over 100 official national delegations attended the Mass, including the U.S. group, which was led by Vice President Joe Biden and included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Governor Susana Martinez (R-N.M.) and DeGioia, all of whom are Catholic.
DeGioia said that his selection may have been related to Francis being the first Jesuit pope and Georgetown’s status as the oldest American Jesuit university.
“It’s one way of acknowledging the role we’ve played in America over these last 225 years,” he said. “I view it more as I was invited because of my role and that it was really Georgetown that was being acknowledged here.”
DeGioia learned of Francis’ elevation while in New York for meetings about the Big East realignment and was notified shortly thereafter that he was being considered for the delegation.
“The next day, I had a voicemail on my phone and I listened to it, and it was Vice President Biden, and I said, ‘Oh, I’d better call back,’” DeGioia said.
DeGioia boarded Air Force Two on Sunday morning to fly to Vatican City and toured St. Peter’s Basilica with Pelosi while in Rome. He also accompanied Pelosi during meetings with diplomats and met with Laura Boldrini, the president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, a house in the Italian legislature He also met with Georgetown alumni and Americans studying at the American Academy in Rome.
On Tuesday, DeGioia watched as Pope Francis greeted a crowd of at least 200,000 in St. Peter’s Square for his installation. The pope spent about half an hour making his way through the crowd, blessing many of the babies and the disabled at the barriers.
The new pope then led a Mass and gave a homily about St. Joseph as a protector and the duty that all leaders have as protectors of their people and of creation. He urged the audience to serve with goodness and tenderness.
“It was a very moving experience,” DeGioia said of the Mass. “It was more of a visual experience in the sense of just watching and seeing how he carried himself. But then I had a chance to read the homily, and what I think is most powerful is that he chose the Feast of St. Joseph as the day for his first mass. You see the convergence right now of a whole bunch of dimensions from his background.”
DeGioia added that the event seemed to be simple and low-key when he first took it in and that he was ultimately touched by the message Francis delivered to the audience, which focused on the fundamental need to serve.
“The key message is this message that St. Joseph was a protector and for all of us to protect one another and through protecting one another, the Church,” DeGioia said. “That’s a very powerful message for where the Church is right now.”
According to Chester Gillis, a theologian and Dean of Georgetown College, this message indicates the direction in which Francis seems to want to take the Church.
“Do I think he’s going to be a really progressive pope theologically? No,” Gillis said. “But his personal values are just terrific. Just look at the impression he’s made. … He’s let out some of the air of the pomp and circumstance of Rome.”
However, Gillis added that Francis would soon face difficulties when he tries to exercise his freedom.
“People in these positions are stressed. He’s going to find out how demanding the papacy really is,” Gillis said. “Everybody notices every move. I hope he has his humility and his openness and his passion, but my suspicion is he’ll have to do less of that as he goes along — not because he doesn’t want to but because the job is so commanding.”
Gillis also noted that Francis may face some opposition from the historically powerful and hierarchical establishment in Rome if he seeks to reform the Church’s structure.
Fr. John O’Malley, S.J., a history professor, said that Francis’ history as archbishop of Buenos Aires as well as Jesuit novice master should help him motivate the Church to better itself. O’Malley said that Francis made his attitude clear through his homily.
“I think he was sending a message of basics and a message of where Catholicism, I think, is strongest and has a wonderful leadership role in the present,” O’Malley said. “Mainly, peace, the environment and care for marginalized, sick and poor. … He kind of suggested that we’re all in this together.”
The diversity of the audience at the Inauguration reinforced the notion of community and togetherness. Among others, Pope Francis warmly welcomed Argentine President Christina Kirchner, with whom he has had a strained relationship in the past, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the first Greek Orthodox Patriarch to attend a papal inauguration since 1054.
Both O’Malley and Gillis said that this signaled a willingness to engage in international and interreligious dialogue and that his message applied to leaders both secular and Christian.
DeGioia said that this attitude opened the door for discussion and reflection on the flight home.
“The vice president came back and spent quite a bit of the flight talking to us about things,” DeGioiasaid. “He really wanted to talk about issues we were wrestling with here at Georgetown.”
DeGioia added that the delegation was truly grateful to have taken part in such an historic occasion.
“To be there for this purpose — for this moment — was such an incredible honor,” DeGioia said. “I don’t think they could’ve picked four people more appreciative.”