Pope Francis in America

In September, the news industry lavished attention on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. Now, autumn has settled in and news outlets have returned to the usual suspects: politics, sports, and turning a profit for the holidays. EP endorser Barry Harvey reflects:

A few weeks ago I received an email asking if I would like to contribute a brief reflection on the Ekklesia Project website on the significance of Pope Francis’s recent visit to North America. I was particularly intrigued by one of the questions in the email that served as a prompt: “In what ways did he fall short or fail?” I would say not only did he indeed fall short, but that the way he failed was a good thing too. Well, maybe not a good thing, but not surprising either.

There is little doubt that people of all faiths and of none intuitively sensed that in this one man there was an intrusion of the extraordinary into the workaday routine that enthralls most of us most of the time, an incursion of something enigmatic and electrifying that in some way or another has a bearing on their daily lives. I heard one young person say that for many seeing Francis was like seeing Jesus. This is an astute observation, perhaps more than she intended, in part because the Pope does have that character about him, but also because it invites us to turn to the gospels, to the encounters that women and men had with Jesus, to help us interpret reactions to the papal visit, and especially to answer the question of whether and to what extent he fell short or failed during his visit.

I wonder, for example, whether the story of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem might shed some light on this occasion. Many of those who greeted Jesus waving palm branches and singing hosannas either did not understand or refused to accept the implications of his arrival in David’s city that he had set forth in the months leading up to that fateful week, and thus a few days later they could be turned against him as he stood before Pilate.

In like manner, how many of those who turned out to cheer Pope Francis either understand or accept what he said in his encyclical Laudato Si’ about the dramatic changes that need to take place in ways of producing and consuming if we are to have a chance of avoiding the debilitating effects of global climate change? How many were moved to seek out opportunities to assist the many refugees that are currently fleeing violence and oppression? Which among us now struggles with our complicity in the ravages of poverty that the global market inflicts on countless millions? To what extent do we mimic in our daily lives what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the shallow and banal worldliness that pursues enlightenment, busyness, comfort and sensuality, and not the profound worldliness embodied in the seamless garment of a consistent ethic of life?

Jesus’ conversation with the so-called rich young ruler, recorded in all three synoptic gospels, also sheds light on the recent papal visit. Intrigued by what he had heard of this man from Galilee, this man recognized that something was required of him by the God of Israel, and that Jesus was someone who could speak with authority on the matter. But what he heard disheartened him, because it would demand turning his well-established life upside down.

In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright describes humankind’s longing for justice, quest for spirituality, hunger for relationships, and delight in beauty as echoes of a voice that transcends the everyday and yet reverberates in the midst of our comings and goings. By themselves, however, these faint whisperings do not allow us to infer much about the world save for “that it is a strange and exciting place.”

Wright’s metaphor offers a fitting description of the intense interest that was shown by so many in Pope Francis’s visit to this country, but it also suggests that by themselves such echoes, if they are not perceived and elaborated within a circle of friends who remind each other that in this age the disciple of Christ is always and everywhere an alien, quickly dissipate in the slightest breeze. “Even when a cause which he has himself supported prevails,” writes William Stringfellow, the Christian “will not be content but will the first to complain against the ‘new’ status quo.”

Our ability to hear what Pope Francis is saying depends to a large degree on whether we are sufficiently formed—morally, intellectually, and spiritually—to recognize that participation in Christ’s body politic does not map cleanly onto the dominant political and cultural categories of conservative and progressive, left and right. One wag has stated that if we in North America were to take the full range of Catholics social teaching seriously we would invariably find ourselves politically homeless, and that is a prospect we are not naturally drawn to. The idea of living in the world with our proverbial hats always on can be disconcerting indeed. Like adolescents the impulse in us to “fit in” is very strong, and thus we find it difficult to resist the opportunity to make ourselves at home in the world.

And so I would say that Pope Francis “fell short” during his time to America, but he did so in something of same manner that Jesus “failed” during his earthly ministry. Driven by media attention, many were attracted by his personal charisma, but like the rich man who went away disappointed when he heard what he had to do to inherit eternal life and the Palm Sunday admirers who cried a few days later that they had no king but Caesar, the popular ardor has cooled considerably on both right and left. Perhaps in his “failure” the reality of cross and resurrection for our witness comes into clearer focus.

One Response to “Pope Francis in America”

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  1. Joel Shuman says:

    Well said, Barry. Thank you for bringing to light that this Pope will never be a darling of any of this world’s political movements except superficially; like the Lord he proclaims and exhorts us to follow, he is destined to be misidentified, misunderstood, and ultimately rejected because he represents so radical an alternative to every existing ideology.

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