During an unprecedented "virtual audience" broadcast nationally on ABC News' 20/20 earlier this month, Pope Francis spotted a US nun in the audience and asked to speak to her.
'Sister, through you I want to thank all religious sisters of the United States...' Francis said to a beaming Sister Norma. 'Be courageous. Move forward, always on the front line. And I tell you one thing more -- is it ok for the Pope to say this? I don't know -- I love you all very much!'
After the last few years, to have a pope say he loves Catholic sisters very much in front of millions of people marks a turning point, one that all Catholics can celebrate.
But on its own, a papal nod of approval -- even from the widely beloved Francis -- can't overcome all the challenges facing Catholic sisters. That'll take all of those who have benefitted from their tireless and often invisible ministries coming together to support them.
Fortunately, Catholic philanthropists are stepping up.
To coincide with Pope Francis' visit to the United States, a group of Catholic foundations committed to supporting a vital Church have released a new report and will launch a social media campaign, We Are Sisters, right after the visit. The effort will encourage vocations, support and solidarity with Catholic sisters and will align with related initiatives, such as National Catholic Sisters Week held annually in March.
This is just one example of the service that Catholic philanthropists provide here in the United States. These philanthropists are another group who will be looking for inspiration and challenge from the Holy Father on his visit to the United States.
When Pope Francis arrives, he'll witness first-hand the vast network of Catholic schools, hospitals, charities, universities and social justice ministries that create pathways out of poverty for all Americans -- and that Catholic donors have helped to build. This network of Catholic institutions enables the American Church to accompany immigrants, shelter the homeless, heal the sick and feed the hungry.
The more than 1500 American foundations funding Catholic ministries globally do immeasurable good.
A looming demographic challenge in the Church, however, could threaten that. Pew Research Centers' 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that roughly 3 in 10 millennial Catholics regularly attend Mass. If Catholic-identified giving falls off dramatically, the Church's ministries and those pathways out of poverty will be at risk.
But Pope Francis is a man of hope, and he can lend his joyful optimism to this cause as well. Here's how.
First, he could affirm the role that Catholic philanthropists play not only here in the United States, but around the world. Some have grumbled that the Holy Father is too hard on capitalism, but Francis takes issue with the impact of unfettered markets, not with responsible businesses that promote human dignity, or with philanthropy that prioritizes the poor. And what better way for the Pope to hold up responsible business than by highlighting examples of how wealth effectively serves the Church's ministries and empowers the poor -- such as through Catholic Charities (which he'll visit in DC) or Catholic Relief Services.
Next, Pope Francis can and will inspire and challenge young people here to get their hands dirty, even to 'make a mess.' Young Catholic philanthropists are like other millennials -- they want to see and feel results. Pope Francis ignites that desire when he embraces the sick and visits barrios, encouraging youth to 'go out!' and care for God's creation. He's making it very cool to be Catholic.
Pope Francis' appearance at the UN and Congress will remind us that the Catholic charitable network extends to nearly every country and consistently ranks among the world's most effective vehicles for peace and development.
The Catholic Church in the US is one of the most vibrant and generous churches in the world, one with a complex history of struggle and prosperity, of decline and growth, made rich with varying languages and ethnicities. Passing this vibrancy on to the next generation of US Catholics is critical. Pope Francis' visit will be an inspiration to that effort, with his profound love for the vulnerable, his gestures of compassion and his quest to make our world a more merciful place.