Pope Francis is Coming, Part III

by Michael Sean Winters

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The last two days, I have emphasized what I think are some of the key themes of this papacy, giving a sketch of an answer to the question: Who is this pope who is coming to the U.S. next month? Today, let’s drill down on a related, but slightly different, question, namely, what do we expect him to say when he comes?

Each city will involve a slightly different focus and flavor, and, as Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service noted in her very well done curtain raiser, the speeches will have a different language than the homilies, and the gestures will be as important as any of the talks. And, Pope Francis is known for his surprises, so in a sense, no matter how good our sources, this is all guess work. Still, educated guesswork is better than the uneducated variety.

For example, the Holy Father said that he had wanted to enter the United States by crossing the border from Mexico, to demonstrate his solidarity with immigrants who make that trek, many of whom die in the attempt. That did not work for a variety of reasons, but I think we can reasonably predict that Pope Francis will find a rhetorical way to express that desire of his heart, to demonstrate his solidarity with immigrants. I am sure that the officials in the Vatican Secretary of State drafting the texts are aware of the explosion of the new nativism in recent weeks, led by Donald Trump and mimicked by other GOP presidential contenders. And, this is an issue on which the U.S. bishops are overwhelmingly united. I would expect his remarks on immigration in Washington, both at the White House and before Congress, as well as in the homily at the Mass to canonize Fr. Serra, will be among his most strongly worded of the entire trip. It would be foolish to think his speech before Congress will read like his speech to the community organizers in Bolivia, but if the pope is going to throw down on any issue, look for it to be immigration.

As Wooden noted in her article, the speech before Congress will be heavily worked over by the diplomatic staff and will probably be similar to the speech he delivered at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last November. He spoke more as a pastor than as a theologian, at least compared to the dense texts his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI delivered at the Bundestag and Westminster Hall, but Pope Francis’ speech in Strasbourg touched on the need for all politics to be grounded in, and directed towards, the transcendent dignity of the human person. As well, he emphasized the importance of the common good over against all national and ethnic and economic interests. The Vatican is acutely aware of the polarization in U.S. politics. As far back as the 1930s, with the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, the Holy See has come to see the value of our often sloppy experiment in democracy. (The education in civics conducted in Catholic schools, and epitomized by the comic book series “The Treasure Chest,” was actually an initiative the U.S. bishops undertook in response to Vatican prodding!) The need to overcome polarization and orient our political life towards the common good will likely be the centerpiece of the pope’s address to Congress.

The third theme he will address, both at the White House and the Congress, will be poverty and the economy of exclusion. Again, I think his words will be more measured than those he delivered in Bolivia. (I also suspect Speaker of the House will not present the pope with a crucifix in which the corpus is nailed to a hammer and sickle!) He will remind Americans that we are a rich nation living in a world beset with abject poverty and call us to the better angels of our nature. Indeed, as soon as he leaves Congress, he will go to the Catholic Charities center in downtown Washington to call attention to the plight of the poor in this land of plenty. He will give voice to the voiceless poor throughout the world, to be sure. As my friend John Carr wrote in his column at America this month, “Pope Francis has never set foot in the United States. Washington thinks it is the center of the world, but it is not the center of Pope Francis’ world.” As much as I do not anticipate a confrontational speech before Congress, this wily old Jesuit will find a way to remind Americans that the Gospel demands a preferential option for the poor, not the middle class, still less the upper middle class.

The speech in Washington that most interests me will be delivered at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, when the Holy Father speaks to the U.S. bishops. The pope is surely aware that there is a significant percentage of bishops in the U.S. who do not much like him. And, in many other instances, this pope has demonstrated a willingness to call out the clergy for not living up to the rigorous demands of the Gospel. Certainly, there is no country on the planet in which Catholic identity has been more thoroughly infused with Jansenistic tendencies, tendencies that could not be more alien to Pope Francis. For “church watchers” that will be the speech that we most anticipate.

In New York, two themes emerge, the environment, linked to the issue of sustainable development, and inter-religious dialogue, and both of these issues, in turn, craft a thid: peace. The pope’s speech to the U.N. will doubtlessly reiterate many of the themes articulated in Laudato Si’ urging the world community to take effective and immediate steps to address the threats posed by climate change and other varieties of environmental degradation. Here we can expect a more full-throttled critique of the economic ideology that has made such degradation normative, as well as a call to move, and move quickly, to address the threats posed by environmental degradation before those threats become even more perilous. The climate change naysayers notwithstanding, even the Pentagon recognizes that continued adverse climate change poses a growing threat to world peace.

At Ground Zero, the Holy Father will hold his only inter-religious event during the visit. It is an appropriate location. While many believers worry about secularism, this pope, like Benedict XVI, has been just as articulate in stating his concerns about religious fanaticism of the kind that manifested itself on September 11. We can expect Pope Francis to do what Jesus did, relativize religious law to the dignity of the human person and the commandment to love, both rooted in the common brotherhood of all humankind. Where there is no love, there can be no faith, at least no authentic Abrahamic faith, and certainly no hope. What better venue than the site of the worst religiously inspired terrorist attacks in history to make the case? If the religions of the world do not find ways to contain their own zealots, if nihilists can pick up religion as if it were any other ideology, the prospects of peace in the world are dim indeed. Religion should be, must be, the opposite of that kind of nihilism which condones the rape of innocent women by jihadis, between their rounds of slaughter and daily prayers.

Finally, the Holy Father will travel to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Obviously, the pope will use these talks to set the stage for October’s Synod on the Family. I suspect that his talks will aim for balance, as did his closing address to last year’s synod, but that the scales will be tipped against those intransigents. I am hoping that in the City of Brotherly Love, the Holy Father will preach upon the two most famous brothers in the Gospels, the Prodigal and the older son. No parable better captures the theological dynamics of the synod, or of the reaction of certain conservative Catholics to Pope Francis more generally. Those who oppose any development of doctrine, or who resented the Holy Father’s famous question, “Who am I to judge?” behave like the older son in the parable. Pope Francis wants the Church to behave like the Prodigal, returning to the Father for mercy, acknowledging we have no right to such mercy, that all is grace. Whatever text the Holy Father preaches on to the throngs expected along the Ben Franklin Parkway, his text and tone will be very different from what we can expect from many of the presentations at the World Meeting before his arrival. I anticipate less “Theology of the Body” and more “Gospel of Mercy” and a balance between the threats posed to Catholic families posed by both the ideology of the market and the ideology of gender.

The Holy Father will also be visiting a prison in Philadelphia. At a time when racial tensions are simmering, and mass incarceration is so intertwined with all the other problems that beset the poor and minority communities in this country, what he says there, the images of him embracing the prisoners, this will likely be one of the most iconic images of the entire trip. As a nation, we do not give a damn about prisoners. The pope will show that the Gospel calls for their liberation. It will be powerful.

If you follow the goings-on of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, you will know that the lead staffers there would probably want the pope to be talking about religious liberty at breakfast, lunch and supper. That is not going to happen. He is slated to speak on the issue in Philadelphia, and may address it in Washington, too, but I suspect the pope will not get into the fine points of the HHS contraception mandate and will, instead, call on all Americans to recognize religious liberty as a great cultural achievement and encourage us to share it with the world which so desperately needs more of it.

As a whole, for EWTN fans or First Things readers, the papal visit will be a sign of contradiction to their normal programming. Raymond Arroyo is rather fond of hosting opponents of immigration reform and climate change skeptics on his show. First Things and other venues of opposition highlight those who abet the idolatry of the market the pope condemns. The pope’s simple liturgical style will drive the trads crazy. And, of course, there will be plenty to annoy the hard left too. Next week I will look in greater detail at the challenge Pope Francis poses to both the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right in this country.



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