For millions of Americans – and some visitors – Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was a whirlwind of spirituality, and of connecting that spirituality to the actions we take as individuals and as a nation.
For others, the message was garbled.
Popes always draw enormous crowds when they visit this country. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict, lacked the magnetism of either Francis or John Paul II, but was still given a passionate welcome when he came here in 2008. This pope has something more. His combination of joyfulness, humility, commitment and dissatisfaction with the status quo has touched millions, here and around the world. Like John Paul II, he is the kind of spiritual leader who makes a difference.
What that difference will ultimately be, no one knows, of course. We are, to a great extent, creatures of habit. The pope’s advocacy for the lives of immigrants seemed to change no minds in Congress or on the campaign trail. Neither did his admonitions on the problem of climate change. Still, he planted seeds. Perhaps someday there will be a harvest.
It may take a while for those seeds to take root in Washington. The day after he addressed Congress, calling for unity to confront the problems of the world, Republican partisans erupted in cheers when one of their own, House Speaker John Boehner, announced that he would leave Congress next month. No one should have expected otherwise, but it was a reality check on even this pope’s ability to change hearts and minds.
Interestingly, Francis mentioned virtually nothing about abortion or same-sex marriage, both of which are opposed by the Catholic Church he leads. You pick your fights. Perhaps he feels that immigration and climate change can be more readily addressed by willing governments or are, in some way, more urgent. Certainly, both affect millions of people.
In becoming the first pope to address Congress, Francis had to navigate the tricky, sometimes indistinct line that appropriately divides church and state. It has always been clear that some matters of interest to religious groups – abortion and capital punishment, among them – are inescapable for those who wield government power in a democracy. Francis offered another perspective on that relationship, demonstrating that temporal issues appropriate to Congress – immigration and climate change, for example – can also be of importance to people of faith. For him, it’s about stewardship of the earth and of care for the creatures who inhabit it.
His reach tells much about the authority he quietly wields. It’s not just that hundreds of Western New Yorkers traveled to Washington, New York and Philadelphia to be in the presence of this pope, but that people traveled even from Francis’ native Argentina, one family making the pilgrimage in a 35-year-old Volkswagen bus.
If he stumbled during his six-day visit, it was in appearing early on to care more about the burden of bishops and priests dealing with the fallout of the church sexual abuse scandal than with children who had been assaulted. He made up for that on Sunday, telling hundreds of seminarians and bishops that he had met with a group of victims and promised them that “all responsible will be held accountable.” He was clear and unequivocal. It was an important moment.
The pope flew back to Rome on Sunday, leaving Americans to ponder his message – to take it to heart or to go on with business as usual. No doubt, it will be a combination of both, but we can hope that it stays with enough people long enough that life becomes better for those who now suffer or who are at risk.