Towards the end of last month, our Holy Father Pope Francis made his eagerly anticipated Pastoral Visit to the United States. Like those of his saintly predecessors—the cerebral trailblazer Paul VI, the energetic actor John Paul II and the scholarly gentleman Benedict XVI—Francis’ visit to America was an historic and memorable occasion that was shared and experienced by millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, both here at home and around the world, thanks to extensive national and international media coverage and the power of modern communications technology. Like his three predecessors who came to this land over the course of the last fifty years, Pope Francis was afforded a personal glimpse of the vitality and vicissitudes of his substantial flock here in America—and, conversely, we American Catholics experienced the blessing of encountering our Shepherd in person and the opportunity to renew our love for and allegiance to the Successor of Saint Peter.
Of course, each papal visit to this country has been unique. That of Blessed Paul VI in 1965 was confined to New York City, where he became the first pontiff to address the United Nations Organization. The great Saint John Paul II crisscrossed America like no other pope before or since, touring nearly all of our major cities during his five pastoral visits in 1979, 1987, 1993, 1995 and 1999. With his rock-star charisma and passionate fidelity to the truth of the Gospel, these spectacular visits sparked a much-needed revitalization of the Catholic Church in America at a time of profound doctrinal and liturgical confusion resulting from erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. During his single pastoral visit in 2008, which was restricted to Washington, D.C. and New York, Benedict XVI was respectfully welcomed by President George W. Bush and endeared himself to the American people with his humble and genial personality; that, together with his vigorous condemnation of priestly sexual abuse, took many of his critics by surprise.
In the weeks and months preceding this latest papal visit, a good deal of discussion in both Catholic and secular media revolved around the question of whether Pope Francis would really click with American Catholics and the American people in general, and there was some apprehension that he might not, for several reasons including the following: 1) he didn’t speak English, our official language and that of the great majority of American Catholics; 2) he was largely ignorant of our country’s unique history and culture; 3) he was highly suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, the capitalist free-market economic system through which our nation has achieved unrivaled wealth and prosperity. Polls showing Francis’ favorability ratings among US Catholics dropping somewhat in advance of his visit seemed to confirm this sense of apprehension. Based on these assumptions, some observers even ventured to assert that Pope Francis himself was not at all eager to visit the United States, dismissing the Holy Father’s own statements to the contrary as merely exercises in formal courtesy.
Thankfully, however, all of these fears turned out to be groundless, due in large measure to the efforts of the pope himself. Of course, Francis has by now amply demonstrated his ability to transcend language barriers by speaking the universal language of Christ’s love to everyone through his simple lifestyle and deeply meaningful gestures. But he knew that gestures alone would not be enough to fully connect with the American people. So despite his advanced age and the difficulties involved, Pope Francis took it upon himself to learn the American language so that he could communicate verbally with us in our familiar native tongue. It must have been a great sacrifice for him to do this, but the result was definitely worth the effort. It was truly wonderful to hear our Argentinian Holy Father speak directly to us Catholics and Americans without the need for an interpreter in his brief prepared remarks at the White House and in his lengthy, well-written address to Congress; hundreds of thousands of English-speaking worshipers also appreciated that he said parts of the Masses at Madison Square Garden and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in their language. And then there were those brief spontaneous remarks he ventured in English at key moments that added extra flavor to many of the gatherings, which usually concluded with “Please don’t forget to pray for me” and “God bless America!” that endeared him to us all the more.
It is true that until recently, Francis could boast only a passing knowledge of American history and culture. However, during an in-flight press conference on his return trip from South America to the Vatican back in July, he promised to read up on these subjects in preparation for his visit here. He obviously kept that promise, for in his addresses and homilies given during this visit, he demonstrated a good working knowledge and understanding of, as well as a keen appreciation for, our nation’s rich historical and cultural heritage. This was quite evident in his masterfully written address to Congress, in which he acknowledged that we are a nation of immigrants and discussed in some detail the different contributions of four well-known Americans to the political and spiritual development of our country. Francis’ grasp of our history and culture was even more clearly evident in his address at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, in which he reminded us that the inalienable God-given rights enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, especially our fundamental right to religious liberty, must be protected and defended.
And finally, there was the claim that Pope Francis regards free-market capitalist economics in general with suspicion and hostility. The Holy Father deflected this inaccurate criticism in his address to Congress by clearly affirming the important role played by entrepreneurship and the creation of wealth in the fight against poverty. He underscored his point by quoting a brief passage from, of all places, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), his lengthy encyclical on the environment: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” Like his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is not opposed to business or capitalism per se; he is only opposed to the selfishness and greed that can, and often do, transform them into destructive forces that negatively impact human society and the natural environment.
By learning our language, getting acquainted with our history and culture, and affirming the proper role of our free-market capitalist economic system, Pope Francis dissolved all remaining psychological barriers between himself and the American people, enabling him to seamlessly connect with his immediate flock and his wider audience. Having first won us over and gained our full trust, we were then receptive to his message, which was the authentic message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—a message of truth and love, a message of faith and hope, a message of mercy and forgiveness, a message of personal responsibility, of respect for human rights and dignity, of peace and justice, of care for creation, of the beauty of marriage and family life according to God's plan.The three overarching themes of Francis’ visit were the centrality of religious freedom, the importance of caring for the natural environment, and the critical role of the family in the life of the Church and civil society. I followed EWTN’s live coverage of this remarkable papal visit as it unfolded, and I appreciated the faithful Catholic commentary offered by news director Raymond Arroyo and his guests Father Gerald Murray and Robert Royal.
The Personal Touch
Pope Francis arrived on schedule at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., his American Airlines jet touching down shortly before 4 PM on Tuesday, September 22. Overcast skies and windy conditions seemed to reflect the general sense of apprehension surrounding this particular papal visit. However, that anxiety almost immediately began to dissipate a little. As the pontiff disembarked and set foot on American soil, closely shadowed by his security detail, he was warmly greeted on the tarmac by a brightly smiling President Obama and his family, Vice President Biden and his family, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and other dignitaries, as well as by an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000 people who were completely fenced in. The unusually high level of security at Andrews was maintained with remarkable uniformity throughout the pope’s stay in America, and it was reassuring to see our Holy Father so well protected at all times. After exchanging a few words of welcome with President Obama in a nearby building and then briefly greeting the crowd, Pope Francis boarded a small four-door silver Fiat and was driven under police escort to the papal nuncio’s residence, where he stayed during his visit to Washington.
Sunshine greeted Pope Francis as he emerged from the nunciature around 9 AM the following morning; he proceeded to personally greet several of the three hundred lucky Catholic schoolchildren assembled nearby. Then he was driven to the White House for the official welcoming ceremony accorded to him as a head of state. Although the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 9:15, Francis did not arrive until ten minutes later because of the time he spent with the schoolchildren. Running a little behind schedule for most of the public events, with the notable exception of the Masses, was a pattern throughout his visit which is typical of his quaintly slow personal style. Although some might be annoyed by this lack of strict punctuality on the Holy Father’s part, I find it charming and even somewhat refreshing. Unlike so many in our excessively fast-paced and self-centered world today, Francis is never in a hurry regardless of the importance of the appointment awaiting him. Of course, he does take his appointments very seriously, but he believes that taking sufficient time to encounter persons along the way is more important than maintaining rigid adherence to predetermined schedules at the cost of avoiding contact with people around him or gruffly brushing them aside. In this regard, Pope Francis gives us a valuable lesson in Christian charity that many of us need to hear, bombarded as we constantly are by the selfish ideas and attitudes of modern post-Christian secular society.
A chorus of cheers from a crowd of some 15,000 people gathered on the south lawn of the White House greeted Pope Francis as the Fiat came rolling up. In his eloquent yet highly propagandistic welcome address to the Holy Father, President Obama stated that the pontiff’s visit “reveals how much all Americans, from every background and every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s approach to the role of Catholicism in our national life has been dictated by its own radically secularist agenda. This was manifested by the fact that, for this very occasion, the President had deliberately reserved choice seats on the White House lawn for a slew of notorious Catholic dissidents and homosexual activists. Continuing his polished speech, Obama remarked to Francis, “You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the ‘least of these’ at the center of our concerns…to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity—because we are all made in the image of God.” True enough words, but here again they rang quite hollow; under the elitist Obama administration, the US poverty rate has soared to 19 percent, the wealthiest 1 percent are richer than ever before, and taxpayer funding of abortion is the order of the day. But the worst hypocrisy came a little later when President Obama turned to the subject of religious freedom, declaring, “Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty.” I cringed when I heard that. By forcing its unprecedented HHS mandate on our country and repeatedly refusing to rescind it, the Obama administration has clearly exhibited its utter disdain for the religious liberties of Catholics and other Christians in America.
In his brief address thanking President Obama for his welcome—his first public speech given in English on US soil—Pope Francis emphasized that religious freedom “remains one of America’s most precious possessions…all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” This was a clear reference to the Obama administration’s egregious assault on our religious liberties with the HHS mandate. In his subsequent remarks, which were dedicated to the need to take responsible care of the Earth, “our common home,” Francis approved of President Obama for offering a proposal to reduce air pollution and highlighted the need to address the pressing concern of global climate change. “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” the pope declared. “We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about ‘a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change’ (Laudato Si’, 13).”
Initially I was somewhat put off by the fact that our Holy Father devoted nearly half of his introductory remarks to the topic of the environment, partly because I am convinced that global climate change is due principally to changes in solar activity and is thus largely beyond our human ability to control, partly because the global warming hypothesis which Pope Francis accepts does not square with the scientifically documented fact of declining global temperatures in recent years, and partly because I felt that His Holiness could have used the occasion to talk about an even more pressing issue such as abortion or radical secularism or the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. However, a close reading of what Pope Francis actually said reveals that the pontiff carefully avoided making explicit political or scientific statements. He was essentially laying out the Church’s perennial teaching on good stewardship of creation within the context of the present situation as he perceives it. He was apparently inferring that climate change is primarily a human-generated problem, but even if it is not, we do need to develop a strategy to deal with it because of its negative impacts on millions of people around the world. And even if increased carbon dioxide levels are not actually fueling a rise in global temperatures as the pope believes, we should still work together to reduce air pollution for the good of the planet and its inhabitants. Then too, it is the Holy Father’s prerogative and even his duty to speak about and emphasize whatever he believes is important for us to hear and think about, and it is clear from Francis’ choice of name, the length of his encyclical on the environment, and many of his addresses and homilies as pope that the responsibility to protect creation is a major theme of his pontificate. And while we Catholics are not obliged to agree with everything the Holy Father says on a matter of prudential judgment such as climate change, we should still listen respectfully to what the Vicar of Christ has to say to us on the matter, and we must never allow our prejudices to prevent us from accepting the Church’s basic teaching on the issue.