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Francis used his popularity to chart a new direction for the US Church

In Congress and at a parish school, at the United Nations and a city jail, Pope Francis spent a whirlwind visit to the United States bridging the realms of the disadvantaged and elite, trying to turn the attention of the mightiest nation on earth away from ideological battles and toward a world he said desperately needs help.

From his very first appearance, he wove together issues that are rarely linked in American public life.

At the White House with President Barack Obama, he upheld religious freedom while seeking urgent action to ease climate change. Addressing Congress, he sought mercy for refugees, while proclaiming a duty “to defend human life at every stage of its development,” a challenge to abortion rights. Standing on altars before the nation’s bishops, he acknowledged the difficulties of ministering amid “unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society,” a recognition of gay marriage.

But he urged American Catholic leaders to create a Church with the warmth of a “family fire,” avoiding “harsh and divisive” language and a “narrow” vision of Catholicism that he called a “perversion of faith.”

The statements amounted to a dramatic reframing of issues within the Church and a hope for less polarization overall in the United States.

“Recalibration and reorientation are good words to describe it,” said John Green, a specialist in religion at the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. “The pope is very adept politically. Even people who ended up disagreeing with him on certain points find him a very attractive and persuasive man. I thought he was quite inspiring.”

So did many others. Tens of thousands of cheering, flag-waving people lined the streets in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia to greet Francis, some waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the wildly popular pope.

On a highly scripted, six-day visit that ended Sunday, and despite unprecedented security, Francis managed to inject spontaneity — kissing babies, adding a last-minute event to honor Catholic-Jewish relations, and going off text in Philadelphia for a heartfelt meditation on family life.

“The atmosphere was electric,” said Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara of New York, after Francis celebrated Mass for 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden.

Amid all the official ceremonies and the crowds, he made the deeply personal gestures of compassion that have become emblematic of his papacy. He bowed in prayer over a disabled child as the sobbing father looked on in New York. He gave a bear hug to an inmate during a visit to a Philadelphia jail.

The Argentine pope, on his first visit ever to the United States, introduced himself as a fellow American and quoted from the country’s founding documents. He answered critics who said he was overly focused on the poor to the exclusion of the middle class, and wrong on economics, given his critique of the excesses of capitalism. In Congress, he praised the “thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work” and noted “how much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty.”

But on every occasion, he transformed these compliments into a call for the Church and the country to do better.

His moral challenge could be seen in the complex heroes he held up in his speech to Congress: Abraham Lincoln; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who condemned war and advocated interfaith cooperation; and Dorothy Day, founder of the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement that helped and advocated for the homeless.

Commentators quickly dubbed the group the pope’s Mount Rushmore.

“The history of this nation,” Francis said at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, is “the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life.”

By his very presence, as a Spanish-speaking son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis gave the growing Latino Catholic community a moment like no other, putting them at the heart of the US Church, where they are eventually expected to be the majority. He canonized the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra of Spain, who brought Catholicism to the West Coast, spoke about immigrants in nearly every public appearance, and told Latinos “do not be ashamed of what is part of you.”

Gonzalo Mercado, director of the Staten Island Community Job Center in New York, a nonprofit that works with day laborers and domestic workers, many of them in the country illegally, said Francis’ message on immigration was particularly needed amid the hardline rhetoric on border control and deportation from several GOP presidential candidates, including Donald Trump.

“To have an amazing figure like the pope take a stand with the least among us and recognize the contributions of immigrant workers is a breath of fresh air,” he said at the Harlem parish school Francis visited in New York.

Mercado gestured to the gymnasium, where the immigrants and refugees were seated at long tables in front of the stage while city politicians, donors, and community representatives were on the sidelines: “Workers here have center stage. That speaks volumes.”

Francis had already upended the American Church before he arrived.

Just months after his 2013 election, he had said the Church should put compassion over rules, unsettling American bishops who had been taking a harder line on Church teaching in the face of increasing acceptance of gay relationships and other societal changes they found immoral. The pope did not suggest they drop any specific activity, but he pressed for a different tone.

John Carr, who served for more than two decades as the social justice director for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, summarized the pope’s message on issues such as abortion and the family as “no obsession, no retreat.”

“He said he came not to lecture the bishops, but what he did was to show them how to be pastors in challenging and promising times in the Church,” Carr said.

It’s unclear what lasting changes will come from the pope’s trip. He broke a barrier in the States: He became the first pope to ever address Congress, an appearance that provided a robust endorsement for the role of faith in public life at a time when about a quarter of Americans say they have no particular faith.

Within the Church, the impact of papal visits can only be measured after years or decades. Pope John Paul II, over his more than two-decade pontificate, visited the United States seven times, inspiring a generation of American clergy who call themselves “John Paul II priests.”

Monsignor Raymond Kupke, a Church historian at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said, “There certainly could be a half century wave or ripple from a visit like this,” because of Francis’ clear, familiar way of speaking and his gestures big and small that captured so much attention, including his use of an economy car, a Fiat, a humbler choice that stood out amid the hulking SUVs of his security detail.

“Over the long haul, there are connections,” Kupke said, “and with Francis, in so many ways, he’s saying things that people here like.”

By Rachel Zoll


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