Pomp and Popery

by Ken Briggs

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In the end, the pope's Northeast corridor swing will be a colorful blur, the medium of presence and motion being the main message, but it might be different if Francis dwelled on a single theme -- the horror of poverty -- from beginning to end. Not just the immorality of it but concrete proposals to attack it, including a commitment from the church to spend its money and human resources in specific ways.

That might leave a lasting impression. It might also add flesh to the bones of Francis' impassioned stated priority and make visits to poor people more than symbolic.

The boldness would require him to afflict the comfortable, Catholic and non-Catholic, from beginning to end. It would risk being annoying. It would at least hamper the pomp and pageantry from smothering the beggar at the gate. It won't happen but imagine if it did?

Francis surely has an overstuffed agenda but is also capable of winnowing the pile to zero in on particular themes to capture attention. He'll have no better opportunity to wave off the niceties in favor of realities than his appearance before Congress. Like most people, Senators and  Representatives decry poverty until the discussion turns to poisonous words such as "sacrifice" which imply divesting the affluent for the benefit of poor people. That suggests increased expenditures of public money which derive from a willingness to pay higher tax rates for the common good. The pope could go that second mile by tying sentiments to concrete means of alleviating the misery. Since proponents of such sacrifices don't gain much credibility without making such sacrifices themselves, Francis could set an example by committing the Catholic Church in America to an action agenda with funding to bring about legal, legislative and social policies designed to achieve the ends he envisions.

The same basic message of urgency, humanity and Biblical morality (the subject of the poor appears over 300 times in the Scriptures, usually as an imperative) would then be applied to every setting in which the pope appears, stoutly resisting the ceremonial smokescreen often intended to cover up those hard saying. This pope is superb at shaking off such things. Whether he has the disposition or stamina to follow through on an unpopular set of party-spoilers is another matter. He has taken the suffering of poverty as his signature theme but that doesn't presume he can take it to the crucial level of implementation or that he necessarily sees that as his role. Perhaps he believes his mission is to be a proclaimer who leaves practice to others. If he does claim that second step, however, here is the golden opportunity, appearing in the splotlight of the wealthiest nation on earth with by far the most affluent Catholics on earth (excluding the swelling numbers of immigrant poor). He could make an impression by using that formula used by successful orators of many varieties -- say it clearly, say it loud, say it often.

In that message, he might help many Americans disabuse themselves from thinking they don't belong among the rich. The line that presumably divides rich from poor is, to be sure, always moving, but most of us use that relative blurriness to convince ourselves that we are not part of the problem. We thereby excuse ourselves as part of the remedy. The pope would do well to remind us how many of us are in the top tiers of the American income. A household income of $80,000 puts us farther up there than many would like to admit, I'd guess, and I think the pope understands this kind of denial. We're all in it together, Francis could keep reminding us, and nothing we do ranks higher in divine mandates than actually doing things both personally and institutionally to relieve the miseries of the neediest.


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