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Time will tell if Pope Francis’ visit has truly changed America

ROME — By any reasonable standard, the keenly awaited Sept. 22-27 visit of Pope Francis to the United States, his first outing to the country in his entire life, has to be judged a massive short-term triumph.

The pope wowed crowds everywhere he went, whether it was leading the “Mass on the Grass” outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, making a swing through Central Park before 80,000 pumped-up New Yorkers on his way to play Madison Square Garden, or drawing hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic Mass-goers to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The “People’s Pope” received overwhelmingly positive media coverage, and in a badly polarized America already in the throes of a rancorous 2016 presidential election season, he managed to avoid stirring significant political controversy despite delivering several speeches and gestures rich with political content.

While it’s just a guess at this stage, after-the-fact polls probably will show that most Americans, already charmed by Francis at a distance, will feel even more fondness having seen him close-up.

Truth to be told, however, virtually the same thing could be said about past papal trips to the United States, of which there have been nine (including one by Paul VI, seven by John Paul II, and one by Benedict XVI.) Occasionally a visit goes off the rails, but in general they’re well-choreographed affairs designed to showcase each pontiff at his best.

It takes time to assess a trip’s lasting impact, in part because it depends on not just what the pope said and did while he was here, but how his audiences respond once he goes home.


Experience teaches that when popes hit the road, their messages are crafted to reach several different audiences, and in the case of this outing, there are many concentric circles:

The entire world, in light of Francis’ Sept. 25 address to the United Nations.
The country, especially in the pope’s address to a joint meeting of Congress and also his talk at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
Other religious believers, with the key moment coming in Francis’ interfaith ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial in New York.
The local Catholic Church, including its leadership class, which might be said to represent the pope’s base.
While it’s too early to hazard answers as to what difference the trip made for these constituencies, one can at least sketch the questions to be asked.

The world

Facing what was perhaps the largest gathering of world leaders in history at the United Nations, Francis ticked off a long list of issues that he feels merit concern, including his signature causes: poverty, war and the arms trade, immigrants and refugees, human trafficking, and so on.

At one level, Francis helpfully has already established a litmus test for the impact of his message: the UN climate change summit in Paris Nov. 30-Dec. 11, and whether it adopts the “courageous choices” for which the pontiff has called.

Also in the here-and-now, another test for the impact of what Francis said over the past week will be whether European policy-makers adopt a generous stance towards the estimated half-million refugees who have arrived on the continent via the Mediterranean Sea this year.


Pope Francis prayed at the final Mass of his US trip attended by hundreds of thousands of people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Sunday night. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis departs with a ‘heart full of gratitude and hope’
Is Pope Francis changing Church teachings before our eyes?
Pope Francis waved from his Fiat as he prepared to depart for Rome at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
Francis used his popularity to chart a new direction for the US Church
Hungary already has built a barrier along its border with Serbia and is currently constructing one along its border with Croatia, in an effort to keep refugees at bay. Francis sees this as exactly the wrong response, which was the sense of his comment aboard the papal plane on Sunday that “all walls fall down … today, tomorrow, or after 100 years.”

Build bridges, not walls, the pontiff said.

Going forward, the pontiff’s global impact may be most keenly felt as a peacemaker.

I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.
– Pope Francis to US bishops
He’s already helped pave the way for normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, and he revealed on Sunday aboard the plane that he’s taken a personal interest in forging a deal to end Colombia’s long-running civil war, speaking personally to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about the peace talks currently underway in Havana.

Next month, Francis will visit the Central African Republic, where a UN-backed interim government is struggling to maintain a fragile peace. Francis has a unique opportunity there, since a main factor threatening to plunge the country back into war are Christian militias that conduct routine reprisals against Muslims.

It will be more difficult for those armed gangs to assert that they’re acting in the name of Christianity if the pope comes to town and begs them to stand down.

Pope John Paul II helped end the Cold War by playing a role in the end of European Communism. Francis has said that today we’re in the middle of a Third World War, being fought piecemeal in various hotspots. Perhaps he can play the same transformative role as his Polish predecessor by engaging in equally piecemeal diplomacy.

If so, Americans will remember that he laid out the template here in that UN address.

The country

In terms of his message to the United States, Francis got it across in three cornerstone addresses: his speech to President Barack Obama on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 23, his speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, and his address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 26.

Putting those three talks together, what emerges is a deeply countercultural political and social agenda for the United States.

On one hand, it’s clear that Francis aligns with the political left in the United States on a variety of themes, especially immigration reform, the death penalty, and anti-poverty efforts. He repeatedly identified himself as a “son of immigrants” and reminded the United States that the country was largely built on the backs of generations of immigrant communities.

All that came in addition to his environmental advocacy, including a strong call for action to ease global warming.

Yet on other matters, Francis is just as clearly more congenial to the cultural and political right.

The pontiff told the US bishops that “I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family” and he called on Congress “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” both unmistakable endorsements of the pro-life cause.

He made an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, clearly offering support for their lawsuit against the Obama administration over the contraception mandates. On the plane on the way back to Rome, he endorsed a “human right” to conscientious objection for government officials vis-à-vis gay marriage laws, albeit without directly commenting on the Kim Davis case, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

At one point during live coverage of the trip, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted out a challenge to identify a single American politician who stands with the pope on everything. Despite an avalanche of responses, the basic answer was that such an individual just doesn’t exist.
Going forward, perhaps one good way to gauge the political impact of Francis’ trip is not whether left and right suddenly agree with one another, but whether American liberals and conservatives at least become less likely to demonize one another over the issues Francis has identified as part of a single continuum of concern for life and dignity.

If so, that would be a major breakthrough indeed for the “Francis effect.”

Other religious believers

The Ground Zero memorial recalls the destructive capacity of religious extremism, and was thus a natural setting for Francis to reflect on the role of religions in the quest for peace.

Standing with representatives of the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist faiths, Francis called their solidarity “a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace, and justice in this community and throughout the world.”

In smaller ways, Francis gave plugs for interfaith harmony during his US trip.

In his speech to Congress, for instance, one of the four Americans he lifted up for special mention was Thomas Merton, the famed Cistercian monk who wrote extensively about Eastern religions and had a deep personal interest in Buddhism.

Francis is a figure with appeal outside the confines of his own religious tradition. He’s also a credible interlocutor for non-Western religions as history’s first pope from the developing world, and clearly is not seen as the “chaplain of NATO.”

In the first instance, Ground Zero calls to mind Islamic-inspired terrorism. Some experts believe the United States may be the place best suited to helping Islam come to terms with modernity, since it has a large Muslim population and a tradition of religious pluralism.

American Catholics may have a contribution to make. Not long ago, Catholics in the United States found themselves caught between an official theology that rejected church/state separation and the lived experience that not being an “established” church actually helped Catholicism thrive.

At the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, American Catholics played a lead role in moving Catholicism into an embrace of religious freedom. Perhaps today Catholics in the United States could help their Muslim neighbors make a similar contribution to global Islam.

The same insight might apply to other faith traditions passing through similar transitions, with the example offered by Francis in America contributing momentum.

The local Church

It’s no secret that the Catholic Church in the United States faces a “best of times, worst of times” moment in the early 21st century.

New waves of immigration, principally from Latin America, are providing the Church with new energy and new human capital. But the Church’s existing base in the country is in decline, with the latest Pew Forum study finding that the number of Catholics has dropped by 3 million since 2007, and that Catholics are now only one-fifth, rather than one-quarter, of the American population.

At one level, the measure of Francis’ success in America will be whether future studies suggest at least some of that decline has been arrested, and whether the pontiff inspires the Latino wing of the Church to take a more visible leadership role in American Catholic affairs.

Beyond that, Francis laid out his core vision for the Church in America in his Sept. 23 speech to the US bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, the money quote from which was probably his line that “dialogue is our method.”

“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society,” he said. “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.”

As part of that picture, Francis urged the American bishops to avoid “harsh and divisive language.”

Such rhetoric “does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart,” he said. “Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

Another test of the trip’s impact, therefore, will be whether the American bishops take that message to heart.

Finally, Francis delivered a second speech to bishops in Philadelphia, this one addressed to prelates from all over the globe taking part in the World Meeting of Families. In it, he repeated his call for a more missionary Church, insisting that pastors should spend less time “explaining” doctrinal positions and more time “doing,” meaning putting them into action in concrete acts of service.

So a final test of Francis’ impact will be whether that shift from “explaining” to “doing” becomes tangible in parishes and dioceses around the world, including in the United States.

In that regard, the trip may have helped Francis implement his vision here in two ways.

First, he shrewdly showed the American bishops that he’s got their back on many of their core concerns.

He praised their “vigilance” on religious liberty in his speech at the White House, pointedly turning and looking at Obama as he delivered the line. He thanked them profusely for their efforts to welcome immigrants, and even angered some victims of clergy sexual abuse by lauding the “courage” shown by US prelates in confronting their scandals.

On the plane going back to Rome, Francis vowed to pursue accountability for those bishops who “covered up” abuse charges, but also seemed to say that vast majority of American bishops have been doing their best.

“They are men of the Church and of prayer, true pastors, who have suffered,” he said.

In that context, whatever ambivalence some US bishops may have felt about Francis coming into the trip may have dissolved, since they’re now more inclined to see him as an ally and a friend.

Second, the overwhelmingly positive reception Francis received all along his American itinerary must have brought home an indisputable truth to the bishops: At least from a political and PR point of view, they need this pope much more than this pope needs them.

Raw self-interest, in other words, may drive some to get on board.

Over time, Francis will also have the chance to further advance his agenda by naming a higher share of the prelates in this country. How he chooses to deploy that authority may ultimately be the most important test of whether the momentum generated by the trip endures.

Not a pope of little plans

Taken together, the foregoing suggests an awfully lofty standard by which to measure whether the pope’s six days in America come to be seen as a long-term success:

Ending a piecemeal “Third World War”
Transforming the left/right divide in American politics
Fighting religious extremism based on the American experience
Steering America’s bishops in the direction of dialogue as a method and “doing” rather than “explaining” as a modus operandi.
Any one of these outcomes would be miraculous, and believing that any single papal outing, however massively successful, could accomplish all four at once is probably delusional.

Yet in that speech to Congress in which the pontiff lifted up four Americans as role models, there’s a fifth he didn’t mention but who, in at least one key respect, seems a kindred spirit.

Daniel Burnham was one of American’s great architects and urban planners, among other things designing the Union Station train terminal in Washington, DC that Francis may have glimpsed during his movements through the city.

Famously, Burnham once said:

Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.

In that vein, Pope Francis is not a pontiff of little plans.

When he visited Our Lady Queen of Angels school in Harlem on Sept. 25, which serves low-income and immigrant children, it was probably the single moment along the way when Francis was most himself. In improvised Spanish, he urged the young people to dream.

“It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them,” he said. “You have a right to dream … Wherever there are dreams, there is joy, Jesus is always present.”

Given the papal exhortation, one is entitled to dream that Francis’ Sept. 22-27 trip to the United States was more than a series of feel-good photo ops and lofty rhetoric. Over time, perhaps it will emerge as the game-changer for the world and the country that Francis clearly intended it to be.

By John L. Allen Jr.


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