By Lambert Mbom
Pope Francis recently completed a four-day visit to the United States that took him to Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia, three major cities on the East Coast known to be hubs for African immigrants in the US.
At the behest of the US based alumni of Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School, elite Catholic girls’ secondary school of the Archdiocese of Bamenda, over 80 Cameroonian immigrants in the US boarded two coaches from Virginia through DC, Maryland and Delaware to attend the closing Mass in Philadelphia. LESA USA’s distinguished president, Judith Nwana nee Mbuy, painstakingly organised this bus ride. In 1985, Pope John Paul II visited Cameroon during which he ordained several priests. Judith had the privilege of participating intimately at the event and this deeply inspired her.
“I met St. Pope John Paul II when he came to Cameroon back in 1985 and I remember the feeling so well,” she said. “I wanted others to share the same experience. I also envisaged this as a mini pilgrimage and help bring the community together as well as help us grow spiritually,” she added.
On his first official outing which brought him to the White House, Pope Francis immediately touted his immigrant roots and connected with the immigrant community.
“As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families. I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.”
Ahead of the Pope’s visit, one noticed a palpable interest in the visit as many Cameroonians in the DC area canvassed for tickets to enable them be part of the historic visit.
“When celebrities come to town, people pay to go see them. The Pope is my own celebrity and I would really like to see him,” explained Caroline Fankam nee Bonu as she impatiently scouted for tickets to the event. No tickets were being sold. The Archdiocese of Washington DC distributed tickets to all parishes of the archdiocese and each set down criteria for selecting delegates to the canonisation Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception.
Mathilda Fienkeng Mbomnda, her three children, Anne Marie (15), Ralph (13), Dasi (11) and her octogenarian father Theophilus Mbomnda who came in from Ohio braved the odds and set out at dawn to catch a glimpse and get the blessings of Pope Francis during the papal parade.
Pa Mbomnda, remarked that he grew up never dreaming of ever seeing a Pope and has not had the rare opportunity of seeing a third Pope up close. He met St Pope John Paul II in 1985 when he came to Bamenda, Cameroon, Pope Benedict XVI in Yaounde and now Pope Francis.
Seeing the Pope strengthened his faith because seeing him is like a child seeing the father, Mbomnda added.
After his midday encounter with the Catholic Bishops of the US at St Matthew’s Cathedral, Pope Francis celebrated his first official mass in the US at the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Among the crowds that gathered for this mass one could identify the presence of Cameroonian Catholic women as some donned the distinguished Catholic Women’s Association (CWA) official uniform while others displayed that of the Catholic Women’s Organisation, an outfit of the Cameroonian Community of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C.
Madam Che Rose, who runs one of the popular home based restaurants serving popular Cameroonian dishes shuttered her business doors to be part of this historic moment with the Pope so close to her backyard. “I am a Christian and the head of the Church was here so I found it necessary to go and see him. I brought my problems and gained my blessings,” she told this reporter.
Highlights of the Mass in DC included the canonisation of the Spanish missionary, Junipero Sierra, who helped to evangelise parts of California. It is significant that the first Hispanic Pope on his first visit to the United States canonised a Spanish missionary immigrant.
In his homily, Pope Francis invited all to follow the example of Father Serra who “had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward…Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”
Judith took part in the celebration at the canonisation Mass and also led the delegation to Philadelphia for the Pope’s final Mass.
“On a community and spiritual level, it felt very enriching and fulfilling making the journey with my family and friends,” Judith remarked. The population that turned out for the Pope shows that the Church still means a lot to many people; the young, the old, kids, babies, families, and non-Catholics. This Pope in particular is touching so many lives in many different ways.
Ahead of this papal visit, Cameroonian born, Fr. Henry Amingwa, priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and President of the Association of African Clergy and Religious in the US, envisaged the trip “as an opportunity once more, to engage the American society and to offer new hope to many. I hope that he tries to make the case that God is necessary because He is both Creator and Father. I hope that he calls America to return to God.”
It is this hope that animated Claire Minang to travel over 1400 miles from Houston, Texas to join the bus ride to Philadelphia for the closing Mass of the Eight World Meeting of Families that was holding there. Even though she missed the Mass because they arrived in Philadelphia, at 11.15a.m and took over five hours to do the half mile walk just to get past security checks, Claire left Philly spiritually satisfied.
“For me, the millions of people that I saw gathered to see him was enough blessings received. I felt doubly blessed by just being on the grounds where he was and fellowshipping with the millions of others there present. It truly was surreal and I am so glad that I made the trip.”
Claire added that “Although we missed the Mass, we felt a satisfaction of purpose and I definitely left Philadelphia with so much joy, peace and blessings and gratitude to God knowing that our Catholic Christians are not in despair but are keeping their Faith strong and keeping God's work of Evangelisation. Pope Francis is truly The People's Pope.”
Mathilda Fienkeng cast Pope Francis’ visit to the US and her family’s encounter against the backdrop of Pope Francis’ message of Jan. 17, 2015: In the family we come to know God, to grow into men and women of faith, to see ourselves as members of God’s greater family, the Church.”
She found charm in the Pope’s eyes and noted: Engraved in memory and heart was Pope Francis’ eyes – so full of love, of laughter, of hope, of joy, of encouragement of wisdom. It is hard to explain this, but as a catechist at my parish, in Pope Francis’ spirit during this brief encounter and throughout his visit, I experienced this year’s message: Clothe yourself in God’s mercy and love your neighbour as yourself.