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5 takeaways from Pope Francis’ historic visit to the USA

October 3, 2015
blog_1443828775(Photo: courtesy of CNS)
How are we to evaluate Pope Francis’ historic six-day visit to the United States? Should it be considered a success? Did the Pope accomplish what he set out to do? Were there questions left unanswered? How should we gage the response of the American Church? Of the American people? What lasting impact will the visit have on the country?
Venture to any Catholic media outlet or blog this week and you’re bound to find as many answers to these questions as there are commentators writing them. It’s not without good reason. Considering the historical context and Francis’ unique global influence, the visit was arguably the most significant of any pope to this continent.
I was fortunate enough to be on the ground in the three cities Pope Francis visited in the US. And though I wasn’t able to attend every papal event, I did have the opportunity on a number of occasions to see the Pope up close, hear him preach, and watch him interact with different groups of people. I followed each of his addresses as he delivered them, madly scribbling notes, paying attention to developing trains of thought and recurrent themes.
Based on my experience during those six incredible days and having followed Francis closely over the course of his pontificate, I offer five key takeaways for anyone who is interested in reflecting seriously on what we learned during this trip about Pope Francis and the direction in which he is leading the Church. I don’t intend to be comprehensive. Nor have I focused on the more sensational stories that emerged (as usual, they are receiving more than enough attention already). Rather, I believe there is great value in looking at the bigger picture.
1) Comprehensive teaching
For a whirlwind trip like this one, the Pope demonstrated a striking ability to teach in a comprehensive manner. Officially, he had eighteen opportunities to speak in the US: some to a specific audience, others to the entire nation or, in the case of the UN address, to the world. Parsing each of these addresses, and those not on the official schedule (like the stop over at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for a meeting with the Jesuit community there), we see that the Pope touched on a wide range of topics: religious liberty, human dignity, family life, politics, ecology, justice, peace, war, persecution, immigration, dialogue, fundamentalism, the consistent ethic of life, the death penalty, the economy, sexual abuse, pastoral attitudes in the church, fear, rigidity, mission, faith, hope, love, God, the workings of the Holy Spirit, Jesus,… to name some!
The takeaway: a selective reading of the Pope’s remarks out of ignorance, or for political or ideological purposes is neither accurate nor helpful. The Pope cannot be pigeonholed, certainly not on this trip. We should all be mindful of the comprehensive nature of his thought, which only reflects the breadth of authentic Catholic teaching.
2) A Church of dialogue
Back in the 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull entitled Unam sanctam, which stated that, “Outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation.” Of course the bull said much more than that. In fact, it was a theological statement grounded in an ancient understanding of the uniqueness of the universal salvific act of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But in the subsequent centuries it did not serve as a good starting point for dialogue with other Christian traditions or other faiths. It was interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as exclusivist, representative of a kind-of “all or nothing” mentality that fostered divisions and alienated non-Catholics.
Unam sanctam is one historical example of the kind of approach that Pope Francis seems determined to avoid. By my count, Francis used the word “dialogue” twenty-three times in five of his addresses. Notably, in his address to Congress on September 24 he made clear his desire to enter into a dialogue “with all of you,” referring to the American people. He elevated Thomas Merton, the great 20th century American Trappist monk, as the preeminent model of dialogue for the country: “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” Likely referring to the recent rapprochement between the US and Cuba, which the Pope himself helped bring about, he said, “This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.”
Pope Francis also taught us that dialogue is not limited to political activity outside of the Church. Here I quote directly and at length from his address to the Bishops, the leaders of the American Church, in Washington, D.C. on September 23:
“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia (“boldness”), the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
The takeaway: According to Pope Francis, dialogue and bridge building with people of varying ideas, political interests, faith traditions, and especially within the Catholic community itself is the only viable approach for the Church in the 21st century. Today, an “all or nothing” mentality does not reflect an honest application of the Gospel. Francis knows that a dialogical approach requires great humility. In his homily during the concluding Mass for the World Meeting of Families the Pope spoke these words to the faithful: “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!”
3) Ecology: a new cornerstone and point of convergence
If today dialogue is the way of the Church, ecology is the new starting point of that dialogue with the world. Pope Francis made it clear when he released his landmark encyclical Laudato si’ that timing was everything. The first papal encyclical devoted entirely to ecology and humanity’s responsibility for the natural environment was released in advance of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September and the COP21 summit on climate change in Paris this November/December. Many anticipated that Pope Francis would speak about ecology and climate change during his visit to America. And speak he did. His speeches were littered (no pun intended) with references to his encyclical, especially his address to the UN.
The UN address is of particular interest for the following reasons: first, it was the foremost opportunity for Pope Francis to speak to the whole world (remember he addressed his encyclical to everyone). Second, Francis developed themes of previous popes at the UN (Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) such as the promotion of human dignity, the problem of humanity seeking absolute power, the senselessness of war, etc. In particular, he framed these themes in reference to integral human development, which cannot be conceived apart from a relationship with the natural world. The Pope spoke about “a true right of the environment,” an intrinsic right, and that, “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion."
The takeaway: It appears that Pope Francis is framing the discussion and promotion of integral human development, which encompasses the key components of the Church’s social doctrine, from the foundational question of ecology and humanity’s relationship and responsibility towards creation.
4) Collegiality in action
For Pope Francis the fraternal relationship and shared responsibility of church leadership between the Pope and the Bishops known as “collegiality” is not an abstract ideal but something to be put into practice. Since his election, he has spoken often of the need to develop collegiality in the Church. For example, in Evangelii Gaudium he wrote that:
“Episcopal conferences are in a position to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32)
Collegiality was realized in a concrete way during Pope Francis’ visit to the US. Some expected (even hoped!) the Latin American Pope would scold his northern neighbors on economic imperialism and excessive material consumption. Others didn’t know what to expect, but sensed that Francis may not be aware of the social and cultural realities given that this was his first ever visit to the country.
Francis, in a sense, surprised us all. He showed a keen awareness and sensitivity to issues affecting the people, the state and the church. “Freedom” and “religious liberty,” two of America’s most cherished principles, ran through a number of his addresses: notable, his opening remarks at the White House, his address to Congress in which he spoke in a remarkable way about Abraham Lincoln, and his speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. On multiple occasions he spoke of “going back,” or “looking back” in reference to American history and its great struggles in building a nation in which human dignity is promoted and safeguarded.
The takeaway: It’s unlikely that Pope Francis, amid his demanding schedule, spent weeks and months learning about the rich history and culture of the United States in books alone. It’s more likely that he spoke often with his brother bishops there. We know that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston (the current President and Vice-president of the USCCB), along with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (host of the World Meeting of Families), met the Pope on numerous occasions ahead of his visit. We also know that the Pope has two very close advisors and collaborators in Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston. The Pope’s keen awareness of American history and sensitivity to the country’s current challenges are probably a reflection of the consultation he initiated with these men, of his desire to support his brother bishops and the American church and encourage the entire nation to be its better self.
5) The Pope is Catholic
It sounds like a truism. But since Pope Francis began critiquing the global capitalist system, trickledown economic theories and financial speculation, some in the United States—even fellow Catholics—have raised doubts about the Pope’s Catholicity. It was a serious enough concern, evidently, that a journalist felt the need to raise it with the Pope during the in-flight press conference en route to Washington, D.C. from Santiago, Cuba. “There have already been discussions about a communist Pope, now there are even those who speak of a Pope who isn’t Catholic,” said Gian Guido Vecchi, “What do you think?” In response, Pope Francis told a story about a woman who considered him the “anti-pope” because he didn’t wear red shoes. Then he concluded, “My doctrine on this, in Laudato si', on economic imperialism, all of this, is the social doctrine of the Church. And it if necessary, I’ll recite the creed. I am available to do that.”
Anyone with an ear to the ground can hear murmurs of frustration and perplexity with Francis from a few Catholic circles. There are various and complex reasons for this. This comment of the Pope, however, serves as a sweeping and penetrating retort in a rather unexpected and almost jovial way. The question has suddenly been turned around. It is now up to those who would question the Pope’s Catholicity to show how his remarks on those touchy social and economic questions contrasts with the established social doctrine of the Church.
The takeaway: Perhaps Francis’ greatest success in these two-and-a-half years as Pope has been his ability to communicate authentic Catholic orthodoxy in a pastoral yet penetrating way that challenges and inspires many different people—much like the Gospel of Jesus Christ does. In turn, this has exposed misconceptions or misrepresentations of the Church’s long-standing social doctrine by some Catholics. The question therefore is not, “Is the Pope Catholic?” but “How do Catholics understand orthodoxy?” The Pope, like his predecessors, is Catholic. Are we?

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