Pope Francis' Visit: Wrap-Up, Part I

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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To say that the past six days were stunning suffers from understatement. It will take time for all of us to reflect upon the Holy Father’s many talks, and perhaps even longer to assess what impact his words will have on the Church and the culture. But, by way of a wrap-up, here are some of the key quotes from this wonderful week, and why I think they speak to the essence of Pope Francis’ ministry, reflecting conscious choices about how to address certain issues.

First: “The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone,” Francis told the US. Bishops gathered at St. Matthew’s Cathedral last Wednesday. “To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind.  May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace.”

The phrase “the immensity of God’s love” speaks to something that has too often been neglected in the U.S. Church. Jonathan Edwards, in 1741, preached one of the most important sermons in American history, entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In more recent times, too many of the most vocal U.S. Catholic bishops have sounded more like Edwards and less like Francis. The most constant ecclesial themes of this visit were encounter, accompaniment, dialogue and inclusion, all of them flowing from “the immensity of God’s love,” a theological fact that points to a clear ecclesiological approach. It is not the approach of the culture warrior but the approach of the pastor.

Second: “’There is a cause for rejoicing here’, although ‘you may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials’ (1 Pet 1:6). These words of the Apostle remind us of something essential.  Our vocation is to be lived in joy.” This is how Pope Francis began his remarks at Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City last Thursday night. Many of his talks featured citations to or quotes from his first, programmatic apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

For the past seven nights, you could turn on the evening news and the top of the hour was not focused on some violent act in our inner cities, not on the apparently unstoppable infighting in Washington, or even the obnoxious, angry, small, xenophobia of Donald Trump. Instead, the news led with Pope Francis and the joy that characterizes his words and his gestures. (Tellingly, by Friday night, Fox News was pushing the Pope Francis stories to later segments in the newscast. I suppose they did not like what he had to say.) Now that he has returned to Rome, will American public discourse return simply to all the nastiness? How will people react to such a return? Will they begin to ask, as they should demand: Why must our public figures be so joyless? Why must our public debates be so small?

Third, at the White House, the pope said, “I am deeply grateful for your welcome in the name of all Americans.  As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.” He went on to refer to immigrants in most of his talks and, perhaps more importantly, to speak the language of Latino Catholics in the vast majority of his talks. But he began by identifying himself personally and reminding most Americans of their immigrant roots as well.

For the past few months, Latino immigrants have had the you-know-what beaten out of them. Donald Trump got the ball rolling, but even those who know better have been unwilling to stand up and speak on behalf of immigrants. The bishops who have been quick to denounce, in the harshest terms, certain policies of the Obama administration have been far less vocal in their defense of immigrants. It is my hope that the combination of the attacks by Trump and others, combined with the Holy Father’s evidence of solidarity, will help Latinos get motivated, get registered, and refashion the political landscape. I harbor the additional hope that they will get motivated within the Church, and refashion the ecclesial landscape. They are the future of the Church.

Fourth: Again, speaking to the U.S. bishops, the Holy Father said, “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.” He said this because he felt it needed to be said, and he wasn’t calling out Cardinal Donald Wuerl or Cardinal Sean O’Malley or Archbishop Blase Cupich when he said it.

Look at some of the comments made by bishops in recent years. Look at the hyperbole of the USCCB response to the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. Remember Bishop Daniel Jenke comparing President Obama to Stalin and Hitler. Remember the statewide exorcism conducted by Bishop Thomas Paprocki after that state adopted same sex marriage. Recall the vicious things said about the University of Notre Dame, and Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins specifically, in 2009 when the school invited the President to speak at its graduation ceremonies. Think of the snarky tweet someone sent out from the USCCB Communications Office – during the pope’s trip – attacking Secretary of State John Kerry. To this culture of nasty vitriol, the pope said “Basta!” Tomorrow, when we assess the impact of the trip on the immediate future of the Church and the country, we will look at the Holy Father’s repudiation of the culture warrior approach in greater detail.

Fifth, at the White House, Pope Francis said, “Mr. President, together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” 

There were three ways the pope could have dealt with the issue of religious liberty. He could have embraced the rhetoric of the “Fortnight for Freedom,” attacking the Obama administration head on. I did not anticipate he would do so, and he did not. (Neither did he throw them under the bus.) He could have pivoted to the issue of religious freedom abroad, which I did think likely, but he did not go in that direction either. Instead, and brilliantly, he reminded Americans of the fact that religious liberty is one of America’s signal contributions to political life (and also to the development of doctrine within the Catholic Church), but, crucially, he prefaced his affirmation of religious liberty by first separating it from any and all attempts to undermine tolerance or promote unjust discrimination. I would also note something that was distinctly Catholic, the phrase “the rights of individuals and communities.” In our Catholic understanding of the right ordering of political life, individuals (and corporations which are understood to be individuals for legal purposes) are not the only things that have rights. Groups, churches and unions, also have rights. If the political class, and the U.S. bishops, had approached the issue the way the pope did, we might have avoided all these messy lawsuits.

Sixth, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Holy Father said, “In a special way I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. [Applause] What would the Church be without you?  Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel.  To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you.’ [Applause] a big thank you…  and to tell you that I love you very much. [Applause]” That’s right. In this section of his talk, and this section only, the Holy Father was interrupted by applause not once, not twice, but three times.

After two Vatican-led investigations of women religious, these words of support and love for America’s sisters was needed and it was, one hopes, healing. At a time when many orders are coping with the fallout from the demographic bubble that ballooned their membership mid-century, only to return to historical norms now, the nation and the nation’s bishops needed a reminder of all that the sisters have done and continue to do. It goes without saying that if you want the kind of Church the Holy Father is speaking about, one that is bruised and dirtied from being out in the world, and especially at the peripheries, you should check in with a sister. Actually, it does not go without saying. It needed to be said and the pope said it.

Seventh, standing at the rostrum of the House of Representatives, and speaking to a joint meeting of Congress, the pope said, “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.  You are the face of its people, their representatives.  You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.  A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.  To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

Congress has lower approval ratings than vermin. Yet, the Holy Father reminded them that theirs is a noble task. He also reminded them that they are to work for the common good, which is not exactly how the founding fathers saw it. Later in the talk, he invoked the Golden Rule which, in many different contexts, and for both political parties, is a source of consternation. The Democrats do not favor treating the unborn as they wish to be treated and the Republicans do not favor the undocumented, or the poor, or the refugee, as they wish to be treated. Here, sadly, I perceive the least effect from the visit: They do not have ears to hear.

Eighth, the pope denounced same sex marriage as a civilizational threat. What? Actually, the words did not pass his lips the entire time he was here. As I noted yesterday, Pope Francis is not an advocate of same sex marriage, to be sure, but if he thought it was such a horrible thing, such a threat, you would think he might have mentioned it. He was explicit on the environment, on immigrants, on the poor, on the incarcerated, but his references to same sex marriage were oblique or non-existent.

Where he did perceive a kind of civilizational threat to traditional family life was elsewhere. Speaking to the bishops gathered for the World Meeting of Families, the Holy Father on Sunday said, “Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust.  The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity.  This is even true of religion.  Today consumerism determines what is important.  Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming… Whatever the cost or consequences.  A consumption which does not favor bonding, consumption which has little to do with human relationships.  Social bonds are a mere ‘means’ for the satisfaction of ‘my needs’.  The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality.” This was a pretty explicit critique of modern, Western consumer culture, yes?


I could go on. His words on sex abuse yesterday after meeting the victims were important. His words to the prisoners in Philadelphia were poignant and showed how differently the Church views their circumstances from the way our U.S. culture does. His words about the poor, and even more his gestures, were consistent with everything we have come to know and love about Pope Francis. The passages I have selected above were chosen because I thought he could have gone a different route on those issues, but chose these routes. He could have mentioned same sex marriage, and didn’t. He could have spoken about immigrants at one or two times, but he spoke about them at nearly every stop. He could have tethered his praise for women religious to a reminder that they must be obedient to the bishops, and he didn’t He could have praised the leaders of the U.S. Church for resisting the forces of secularization, but the word secularization was not spoken either. He could have thrown a bone to the culture warriors, and he did not.


The question is, will any of it make a difference? I will turn to that issue tomorrow.



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