The last five days, I have been running curtain raisers for the Holy Father’s visit to the U.S. I organized them in a way that I thought made sense but now I realize that there are a few key points that I was not able to fit into the narrative that nonetheless warrant some attention, and so I will set those forth this morning.
First, and most importantly, it is worth noting that fifteen of the pope’s talks in the U.S. will be either in Spanish or bilingual. This should not surprise. Some sixty percent of Catholics under the age of eighteen are Spanish speakers. The future of the Church in this country rests with this population and it only makes sense that the pope will speak in Spanish because it is their language as well as his own.
The linguistic bond is only part of the story. I suspect that Latinos will experience the papal visit very differently from the way Anglos do. There will be enormous pride in the fact that he is the first Latin American pope, to be sure, just as many Greek Americans took pride in the candidacy of Michael Dukakis. (Here endeth the analogy: Pope Francis has charisma.) But, it goes deeper than ethnic pride. The pope speaks the cultural language of Latin Americans, especially those who immigrated to the U.S. His focus on the economy of exclusion is not just a theory to immigrants, it is their personal history. Pope Francis’ insistence on the human dignity of all resounds more powerfully among those whose dignity has been threatened, often repeatedly, from the rich and the powerful. And alongside his trenchant critique of the socio-economic system that makes immigration a necessity for so many people, there is Pope Francis’ evident joy about life and the lives of the marginalized. This resonates with my own experience of Latinos whose circumstances may be woeful but who still manage to find joy in life, in their families, in nature. This pope is their pope is a way that is very rich and varied. In DC, I expect every Latino in the Metro area to find a way to get to the Mall or one of the motorcade routes to wave at him.
This visit, then, is a huge shot-in-the-arm to all those engaged in Latino ministry, in Latino theology, in community organizing in the Latino community and to all of those whom they serve. I have come to believe that Latinos are God’s last ditch effort to keep the Catholic Church in this country from turning into an upper middle class club. God’s effort will get a great deal of human cooperation from this visit. I do not know if we will see a spike in Mass attendance in Latino communities, nor an uptick in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, although that would not surprise me. Sometimes the effects take awhile to be felt or even noticed, but I think the Latino Catholic community is going to experience this visit very powerfully and I hope that their response is just as powerful.
All the above would have been the case in any event, but if you have been watching the news the past few weeks, you know that Mr. Trump has decided to speak about immigrants in the most hateful ways. He has also ingeniously managed to have the press eating out of his hand. Several nights last week, all three cable channels – CNN, MSNBC and Fox – led their 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 10 o’clock programming with ten to fifteen minutes of Trump. The man is almost the perfect, dare we say it, anti-pope. Pope Francis champions immigrants and Trump denigrates them. Pope Francis spreads love and Trump spreads hate. Pope Francis’ most famous one-liner is “Who am I to judge?” and Trump’s is “You’re fired.” The contrast could scarcely be greater and, come next month, the contrast will be vividly seen on the nation’s television screens each and every night of the Holy Father’s visit. Smart money is on the pope!
The second item I could not fit in to the other pieces has to do with organized labor. My friends in the labor movement tell me that at each and every meeting this summer, the rank-and-file of the movement were expressing their enthusiasm for the pope. Two months ago, my colleague Tom Roberts ran an interview with Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO which began, “It’s easy to make the country’s most powerful labor leader go almost schoolkid giddy. Just say, ‘Pope Francis.’” From top-to-bottom, the labor movement grasps that the pope is speaking their language and, like the Latinos, I expect you will see plenty of workers along the motorcade routes and outside the U.S. Capitol when the pope is here. As I have noted before, I would be surprised to see large groups of, say, hedge fund managers lining the route to cheer the pope. Organized labor, like the Catholic Church, also knows that its future will largely be Spanish-speaking and so having a Latino pope who speaks so powerfully about solidarity and so crushingly about laissez-faire economics is a dream come true for labor, which needs a shot in the arm right now.
Lastly, having set forth how I think Pope Francis challenges both the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right, I hope that everyone will take the next month to get out of their defensive crouch and, when the Holy Father is here, simply ask these two questions: If he more consistent than me? And, what is holding me back from being consistent like him? You could insert the word “free” instead of consistent, or “holy” or “Christian” or, better, “Christ-like.” One the charisms of the Petrine office is to confirm the faithful. I hope we will let him confirm us in the faith, all of it, and when we cannot assent, we will not tune him out, not get all defensive, but listen, and pray, and ask ourselves why we are not more like him in our Christian witness, belief and practice. I do not deny the possibility that one can, in good conscience, disagree with something a pope says. But, it seems more than obvious to me that what is really appealing about this pope is his radical combination of fidelity and freedom, which tend to be the two values in play in most of the debates that animate the Catholic Left and Right. So, if he can do it, why can’t the rest of us? Even if, at the end of the day, you can’t see your way to agree with him on, say, same sex marriage or the need for environmental protection, the process of reflection will hopefully have benefited anyone who undertakes it.
Buckle up. I suspect this papal trip will be a galvanizing event in our culture. It will receive saturation coverage and the images will be startling: When was the last time you saw any politician visit a prison or a homeless shelter? The pope’s message will give us all much to think about and to pray about. We are so blessed to have this magnificent pope at this moment in the Church’s history.