When he was still a priest, a young man asked Pope Francis what God was up to before he created the world.

“They always ask the difficult questions, you know,” the pope said in off-the-cuff remarks before tens of thousands gathered for the Festival of Families Sept. 26 at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. The crowd chuckled.

“I can tell you that is was hard for me to come up with an answer,” the pope confessed. “I told him what I’m telling you now. Before creating the world, God loved. Because God is love.”

God’s love was so great, he said, it couldn’t be “egotistical.” He added, “I don’t know if this is very theological, but you’ll understand what I mean.”

God gave his beautiful creation to human beings, man and woman. The family is “the most beautiful thing God made,” the pope said.

Before Pope Francis’ historic visit to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, much of the talk centered around what the pope would say during the joint meeting of Congress and at the United Nations General Assembly. But Francis spoke more paternally to Catholics during his homilies and prayer gatherings.

rnFamily, the domestic Church

“I know that one of the dreams of your parents and teachers is that you can grow up and be happy,” the pope told students at Our Lady of the Angels School in Harlem, a visit he requested. “It is always good to see children smiling. Here I see you smiling. Keep smiling and help bring joy to everyone you meet.”

He spoke of his admiration for Rev. Martin Luther King and encouraged the children to dream for better things, for a better world as King did.

“Wherever there are dreams, there is joy, Jesus is always present,” the pope said. “Because Jesus is joy, and he wants to help us to feel that joy every day of our lives.”

Before thousands gathered for Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York, the pope spoke of the riches of a big city, of the beauty of the many cultures and the many ways human beings express the meaning of life.

“One special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, to contemplate, even in ‘moments of darkness,’ the light which Christ brings,” the pope said in his homily. “God’s faithful people can discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city.”

This hope is born out of the belief that Jesus is present and is part of people’s lives, the pope said.

“God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough. She wants to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, as she proclaims the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace,” the pope said.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he said, quoting from Isaiah. “And we ourselves are witnesses of that light.”

rnPastor and brother

According to some estimates, more than a million gathered on Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Sept. 27 closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families. In his homily, Pope Francis encouraged gestures of love, like a blessing before bed or a hug after a hard day’s work.

“Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home,” he said. “Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.”

The millions who crowded onto streets in Washington, New York and Philadelphia will undoubtedly remember the small gestures the pope made to them, blessing them as he passed in his popemobile.

Vatican guards served not only to protect the Holy Father, but to bring him babies to kiss. Before his address at Independence Mall in Philadelphia Sept. 26, the pope kissed three babies in a span of less than 50 yards. The babies were the only ones not taking pictures with smartphones.

Pope Francis also expressed his affection by meeting with a hundred prisoners and families of victims at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. He took time to shake hands with everyone present.

“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” he said. “I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection.”

He recognized St. Junípero Serra for doing just that during the Sept. 23 canonization Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the Catholic University Campus in Washington, D.C.

“He made them his brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said of how the saint identified with the native people. “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Finding light in darkness and hope amid suffering is a theme the Holy Father returned to again and again. In his meeting with visiting bishops at the Seminary Chapel of St. Martin in Philadelphia, the Holy Father addressed the sex abuse crisis.

“I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm,” he said. “I am profoundly sorry. God weeps.”

Pope Francis met privately with five survivors of sexual abuse and their families at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia on Sept. 27.

“These survivors of abuse have themselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy,” the pope said. “We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.”

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson, said the pope reiterated the Church’s commitment that all victims be heard and treated with justice. The guilty will be punished and crimes of abuse will be combated with an effective prevention program in the Church and in society, he said.

rnLight in the darkness

Pope Francis reflected on the Holy Family’s search for lodging before the birth of Christ with homeless individuals at St. Patrick in the City in Washington Sept. 24.

“In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness,” he said. “As it did for Joseph, faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.”

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica of Salt and Light Catholic Television said that the Holy Father’s visit cannot be understood through the lens of the American political divide. He pointed to the pope’s love for and incessant references to Scripture.

“He’s a good man, he’s a holy man,” he said. “He’s in love with Jesus.”

In his “political” addresses to the Congress and the UN, the Holy Father steered away from direct confrontation. He worked toward bridging divides between political ideologies.

Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart, writing for Slate, said the pope was using a rhetorical device, forging together issues that pundits separate.

“What the pope was doing when he signaled a right turn only to veer left was not to indicate a relaxing of his convictions about same-sex marriage or abortion, and it certainly wasn’t a show of support for Democratic politicians,” she wrote.

“Rather, it was part of a larger attempt to prod U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle to see beyond the narrow sets of issues that obsess the country during its election cycles and to abandon the factionalism this narrowness engenders so they can solve more pressing problems.”

At the UN, ahead of the General Assembly’s discussion on climate change, the pope connected the issue of environmental degradation with the suffering of the poor. His wide-ranging discourse called attention to the issue of Christian and cultural persecution in the world. He asked delegates to set aside partisan interests in order to recognize human dignity.

rnServant of the servants of God

The media coverage of the papal visit to the United States included a channel dedicated to continuous coverage. Many, no doubt, will remember the week as a time when their favorite television show wasn’t aired or when less attention was given to Donald Trump.

Residents of Washington, New York and Philadelphia complained about blocked streets and delayed subways. The city of Philadelphia was practically shut down last weekend.

But those who turned out to see the “rock star” pope did not do so because he fit in their political box. They came to see him because he doesn’t fit in any box, save perhaps a Catholic one.

“I love the pope,” said Maura Scarna of the New Jersey, among the throngs that turned out for the pope’s Independence Mall address in Philadelphia. “He has a message of inclusion and it’s beautiful.”

Claudia D’agostio, making a three-mile walk to the Festival of Families, said the pope is honest and sincere.

“What he preaches is what he does,” she said. “He walks the talk.”

Aaron Kelly, a seminarian with the Rochester Diocese in New York, said Francis has a way of speaking truth and doctrine effectively.

“Catholics and Christians like this pope,” he said after watching the pope address Congress with thousands gathered on the West Front Law outside the Capitol.

“It’s great to be here to see the faces on all the people,” he said. “He’s a true shepherd. The country is going to catch Francis fever.”

Yet on the plane back to Rome, Pope Francis was reluctant to call the visit a success.

“It’s important if you can do good with power. And Jesus defined power, the true power is to serve, to do service, to do the most humble services, and I must still make progress on this path of service because I feel that I don’t do everything I should do,” the pope confessed.

Mathilde Imberty of Radio France asked him if it was good for the Church for the pope to be a star.

“The pope must be the servant of the servants of God. … How many stars have we seen that go out and fall,” he said. “It is a fleeting thing. On the other hand, being servant of the servants of God is something that doesn’t pass.”