World

When the People’s Pope visited America: A trip to remember

By Russell Pollitt 29 September 2015

Pope Francis returned to Rome in the early hours of Monday morning after a nine-day trip that took him from communist Cuba to capitalist United States. In what seemed like a gruelling schedule, the 78-year-old Pontiff went from addressing Congress and the United Nations General Assembly to visiting a school in Harlem and a prison in Philadelphia. During his visit, the Americans coined the phrase 'The People’s Pope'. Francis has now returned to the Eternal City but what has he done for the US and the world? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

It’s important to note that the pope’s journey to Cuba and the US had two distinct constituencies, which, many times, heard the same message. The main purpose of his journey was to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Yet, wherever he went, he spoke skilfully to the Catholic Church and to political leaders – the messages often linked and interwoven. It is a bit premature to analyse the impact of the papal trip but, in broad strokes, there are a few things worth noting.

Pope Francis had to navigate a uniquely American minefield of political and religious divisions. He did this in what the New York Times called “a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path”. He is the first pope to have addressed a joint sitting of the US Congress. He called on Congress and world leaders at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to take action against climate change and the destruction of the environment. He advocated for the needs of the poor and made a passionate plea on behalf of immigrants, calling himself “the son of migrants”. He also emphasised, in both contexts, religious liberty and asked that world leaders do all they can to bring wars, raging in various places across the globe, to an end.

Francis had a few messages for the sharply divided Catholic Church in the US too. A number of US bishops have been outspoken on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. They have gone to war with the Obama administration about the contraceptive mandate. Some bishops have forced Catholic schools to dismiss openly gay teachers or make them sign a doctrinal oath. Francis asked bishops, on this trip, to be less harsh, use softer language and be more open and welcoming in their approach to the church and society. During the final mass he celebrated on Sunday in Philadelphia – which also marked the end of the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families – he said: “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions.” He never mentioned same-sex marriage or abortion.

At the same mass, the pope exhorted American Catholics not to be afraid of trying new things – even if they seem to threaten long-practiced traditions or existing church structures. He told hundreds of thousands who filled Philadelphia’s iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway: “To raise doubts about the working of the spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not ‘part of our group’, who are not ‘like us’, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!” These are very strong sentiments for a divided church and an embattled hierarchy.

At the end of the mass it was announced that the next World Meeting of Families would take place in Dublin, Ireland, in 2018. This is also significant: Ireland has been badly affected by the clergy sex-abuse crisis (the worst outside the US) and, in May this year, traditionally Catholic Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage in a referendum.

Vatican analyst John Thavis said Francis wants a conversion amongst church leaders in the way they approach modern families. Thavis said: “I think the message is that the church has to work in the real world, with real families, instead of expecting families to meet the ideal definition, or measure up to church teaching.”

Conservative Catholics were disappointed that the pope endorsed President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda and did not mention abortion, euthanasia, or same-sex marriage. He asked Congress to rethink its position on the death penalty when he spoke about ‘respect for life’. By doing this, it seems, Francis was able to pursue his own agenda: to present a more welcoming, open, and optimistic view of the church to American Catholics. He also wanted to encourage a more embracing attitude towards immigrants.

In the run-up to his trip to the US there was much debate about whether Americans would actually listen to the pope’s message. There was an unease that Francis might try to appease the political left in what he said. Many feared his ‘anti-capitalist stance’ (which is to misunderstand what he says, as he critiques ‘unfettered capitalism’ rather than calling for the demise of the system, as some claim) and his hard message against consumerism. There were also sharp divisions over his views on climate change, the environment, and the right to life.

Yet Francis seems to have managed his way through the hot-potato issues effectively. He did not just ignore them either but, in typical Francis fashion, dealt with them in his way. One has to listen carefully to the words he chooses to use and the context in which he frames issues. When Francis speaks you have to listen with a finely tuned ear or you will miss a lot.

He was applauded in Congress, at the UN and by huge and enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. His trip received extensive and positive media coverage. He did not use the divisions across the political and religious spectrum to make a point. Instead his message was “We can be better than this, we can do it together”. The slogan on a T-shirt in Philadelphia probably summarises what many people felt and thought: “This pope gives us hope.”

Francis, like Pope Emeritus Benedict, met with victims of child sex-abuse. Survivors were given a chance to tell their stories while he simply listened. Some of the victims were abused by family members, others by educators, and some by clergy. Francis told them that he was “deeply sorry” that when they came forward to say what had happened that they were not believed. He assured them that those responsible would be held to account. Speaking in Spanish he said: “I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.” Later that day he told the American bishops: “God weeps over what has been done to youngsters.”

Living up to his reputation as ‘Pope of the People’ he visited a school in Harlem that serves low-income immigrant students. Some of them are also unaccompanied minors. Francis spoke off-script and clearly enjoyed himself. His body language indicated that he was comfortable as he laughed and joked with the students. The visit to the school showed that Francis is able to communicate well with big crowds but that he is also comfortable, and communicates well, in small settings. He has the ability to speak forthright words to world leaders while also being able to hold the attention of young people to affirm and encourage them.

On Sunday, in Philadelphia, he visited a prison where killers, rapists, and gangsters are incarcerated. He greeted each one and then told them that their time behind bars was so that they can get their lives back on track. The prisoners made the pope a wooden chair for the occasion. Many of the inmates seemed moved as they clasped his hands or gave him a hug. “May you make possible new opportunities, new journeys, new paths,” Francis told them. He did not spare his critique of the prison system either. “Confinement is not the same thing as exclusion. It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said.

The papal visit came to an end as darkness fell in Philadelphia. Blue lights escorted Pope Francis to the airport, where he thanked his hosts and the organisers. Vice-President Joe Biden walked with Francis to his plane.

Time will tell if the so-called ‘Francis effect’ will play out in immigration reform, climate change, capital punishment, nuclear disarmament, and creating a less harsh and more inclusive church – all things stressed during the visit. The huge coverage, international interest, and issues at hand seem to suggest we have not heard the end – from both sides. One thing seems clear: despite his detractors the ‘People’s Pope’ is very popular across the rather large and diverse political and church spectrum. Many in the diverse spectrum, the visit suggests, are interested in what he has to say. He also shown, yet again, that there is no disconnect between him and ordinary people – unlike so many other leaders in the world today.

Vatican analyst John Allen Jnr might be spot on: “Perhaps that will be another sense in which Francis becomes a pope of firsts, disproving the conventional wisdom that honeymoons always someday end.” DM

Photo: A handout picture provided by the Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ on 28 September 2015 shows Pope Francis looks at the Statue of Liberty from the window of a helicopter on his way to the John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York, on 26 September 2015.

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