Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori told Pope Francis of the challenges confronting Baltimore during a meeting Thursday at the Vatican, talked about Freddie Gray and asked the pontiff to pray for the city.
Lori, spiritual leader of the region's half-million Catholics, said Francis "listened with great, great attentiveness, offered prayers and showed a great deal of interest in the many efforts going on to address some of the deep and systemic problems in our city."
Lori traveled to Rome with the director of the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal order for Catholic men, for the group's annual audience with the pope. Lori is the group's lead chaplain.
"It's a busy time of year, but a visit with the Holy Father was very important to me," he said by telephone from the Italian capital Thursday night.
When he set out for Rome two days ago, Lori said, he didn't realize that Thursday was the pope's 79th birthday, but the timing was fortuitous. He had brought a gift: A cross that sits atop a base hewn from the centuries-old Maryland tulip poplar known as the Liberty Tree.
Lori said he received the cross, one of three made from the tree's wood, from the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maryland to give to the pope.
One of the others is displayed in the Brick Chapel in St. Mary's City, a reconstructed version of the first Catholic chapel in Maryland and an emblem of religious freedom in America.
"This gift symbolized Maryland's heritage as the first place in the Western Hemisphere to practice religious toleration, and the Holy Father was most interested in that," Lori said. "He made reference to the statements he made on religious liberty when he visited our country" in September.
It also led to "a very interesting and heartfelt conversation about those abroad who are suffering religious persecution, especially in the Middle East," he said.
Lori said Pope Francis is aware of the historical significance of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the first Catholic diocese in the United States. He said he spoke with the pope about "some of the challenges our city has faced over time, especially this last year."
He included problems such as racial and economic disparities, a dearth of adequate health care and educational opportunity, and the "breakdown" of the family.
Lori said Francis engages easily with such topics because of the years he spent working with the poor in his native Argentina and elsewhere.
"I don't know if he was specifically aware of Freddie Gray, though [the name] certainly came up in our conversation," Lori said. "He was indeed aware of the racial unrest in several American cities, including our own."
Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. His death inspired protests against police brutality in Baltimore and across the country. On the day of his funeral, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.
Six police officers have been charged in Gray's death. All have pleaded not guilty. The first trial ended Wednesday in a mistrial.
Lori said his meeting with the pope also meant an opportunity "to speak about the goodness of Baltimore, about the many, many people who are serving heroically in Baltimore, about the richness and beauty of the city as well."
Lori planned to return home Friday.
The pope's familiarity with the city didn't surprise the archbishop, who has met him several times, including during the pontiff's visit to the United States in September.
Lori said he considered that visit a "major success" but for one detail.
"I only wish the Holy Father had visited Baltimore," Lori said, and laughed.