The First American Pope Makes a Comeback

by NR Interview
Almost home.

‘Without having discussed it with the Holy Father,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley writes, “I think that there are some themes from the life of St. Francis that [Pope Francis] is trying to communicate by choosing this name.”

First, there is “the call to rebuild the Church,” he argues, “which is a call to reform, and to deepen our conversion to the Lord.” Another theme is “universal de Janeiro brotherhood,” which includes a “special love for the poor, who are a sacrament of the crucified Christ,” O’Malley writes. And in a catechetical session in Rio this week, he explicitly added that “we cannot be indifferent to the spiritually homeless . . . the spiritually starving. . . . We are often willing to help with material needs; spiritual needs are just as real.”

O’Malley, the cardinal archbishop of Boston, is in Brazil for World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics from every continent. Planned by Pope Benedict XVI, it is the first international apostolic journey for Pope Francis. It is also his first return to the continent of his birth since he left Argentina to attend the conclave in Rome that elected him pope.

The non-Rio quotes above come from the foreword O’Malley wrote for Thomas J. Craughwell’s new book, Pope Francis: The Pope from the End of the Earth, which serves as an introduction to the former bishop of Buenos Aires and recaps the scene in Rome as the world watched him become pope. Craughwell, whose book Stealing Lincoln’s Body was adapted into a History Channel documentary, talks about Pope Francis, the future of the Catholic Church, and its relevance to our lives as Francis continues to pray with the millions gathered in Rio.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so important about the Catholic Church in the “global south,” where the eyes of the world are turned this week?

THOMAS J. CRAUGHWELL: Europe is the historic heartland of Catholicism, but secularism has made enormous inroads there, and religious practice has declined to disastrous levels. In Italy, where 97 percent of the population is baptized Catholic, only 22 percent attend Mass on Sunday. In France, where 88 percent of the population is baptized into the Catholic Church, the numbers are even worse: Only one in 20 attend Mass. Today, 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live in North and South America. Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population with 130 million Catholics, followed by Mexico with 96 million and the United States with 74 million. The demographics of Catholicism have clearly shifted from the Old World to the New World.


LOPEZ: On the night Pope Francis was elected, you write, “St. Peter’s erupted. Residents of Rome raced toward the Vatican, and those watching around the world rejoiced.” Why do people in an increasingly secular age care about the Chair of Peter?

CRAUGHWELL: For Catholics, of course, the election of a new pope has tremendous religious significance. The pope is the direct successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, who was given authority over the Church by Christ himself. Each pope is a physical, living link to the age of the apostles, when Jesus walked on earth. And the pope preserves and teaches to the world all that Jesus taught. It appears that even people who are not religious are attracted, or at least interested, in the papacy. It is the world’s longest surviving institution, and is not a dynasty or an empire but a sacred legacy dedicated to the salvation of souls and helping the helpless throughout the world.


LOPEZ: What’s so special about Pope Francis? People were talking about a “Francis factor” before they even knew who he was. What accounts for this?

CRAUGHWELL: Pope Francis is straightforward, down-to-earth, and humble. He is at ease with everyone and sets everyone around him at ease. He is a pope you could invite out for a cup of coffee and he would go. It’s ironic, but being simple has made Francis a rock star. John Paul II was a rock star, too, but there is a difference between the two popes: John Paul was a Bruce Springsteen, while Pope Francis is a Buddy Holly.


LOPEZ: This trip was planned long before we knew we’d have a pope from South America. Why is the location significant?

CRAUGHWELL: For more than 500 years, South and Central America have been Catholic strongholds where Protestantism was virtually unknown. In 1970, 96 percent of Mexicans and 92 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic. Today, it’s 83 percent in Mexico, 65 percent in Brazil. In countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, the statistics are worse — half or less of the population say they are Catholic. Evangelical Protestant churches have made significant inroads where the Catholic Church once enjoyed a monopoly. Francis’s visit, and the excitement it has generated in the streets of Brazil, may revive the tepid, or even lapsed, faith of Catholics in the region.



LOPEZ: Why does he keep going to St. Mary Major in Rome?

CRAUGHWELL: The fifth-century Basilica of St. Mary Major is the premier shrine to the Blessed Mother in Rome. Francis is devoted to Our Lady. (Find me a pope who wasn’t. Find me a practicing Catholic who isn’t.) The day after his election, he spent half an hour kneeling in prayer before the ancient icon of Our Lady, Protectress of the Roman People, the most sacred image of the Virgin Mary in the Eternal City. But St. Mary Major has another tug at Francis’s heart — on Christmas Day, 1538, in the tiny chapel where the relic of the Infant Jesus’s manger is displayed, St. Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass. St. Ignatius founded the Jesuits, and Pope Francis is, of course, a Jesuit.



LOPEZ: Who is the “Undoer of Knots” and why does she matter to understanding Pope Francis’s vision of the Church today and moving forward?

CRAUGHWELL: While he was completing his doctoral studies in Germany, Father Jorge Bergoglio visited the Church of St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, Germany. There he saw a painting of Mary untangling a knot from a long white ribbon. The image is the work of artist Johann George Melchior Schmidtner, who painted it in about 1700. The inspiration for the painting comes from the writings of the bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus (c. 130–200), who said, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In an age when spiritual and temporal “knots” are rampant, and faith is in short supply, Our Lady, Undoer of Knots is a welcome addition to Catholic devotional life. I have begun to pray to her every day because I have a whole lot of knots that need undoing.



LOPEZ: When the young man who would become known as Pope Francis told his mother he wanted to be a priest rather than a doctor, he said he was going to “study the “medicine of the soul.” Have we seen that sentiment in his approach to the papacy?

CRAUGHWELL: Absolutely. Like any physician, he has to show up in the examination room and practice his art. And Pope Francis does. He teaches, encourages, exhorts, inspires, and sometimes he reproves — the spiritual equivalent of telling us to eat less fried food, eat more vegetables, and get more exercise. He does this in a manner that is off-the-cuff rather than scripted, and it has won him an enormous following, even in Rome, which has seen its share of popes. At the weekly Wednesday outdoor papal audience, John Paul could fill half of St. Peter’s Square; the crowds that come to Pope Francis’s audiences have been overflowing the square and spilling down the boulevard leading to St. Peter’s.



LOPEZ: What’s significant about the trip Pope Francis made to the Aparecida shrine on Wednesday? How does it feature in his time as a bishop in South America?

CRAUGHWELL: Our Lady of Aparecida is the national patroness of Brazil and her church is one of the most important Marian shrines in the world. The massive basilica — which can accommodate 45,000 worshippers — draws 10 million pilgrims each year. In 2007, the bishops of South America gathered at Aparecida to discuss the future of the Catholic Church in their part of the world. The document they released — written largely by then-Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis — called for four things: a more dynamic Catholicism that would reclaim souls lost to the Evangelical churches; an unequivocal solidarity with those on the margins of society, from the disabled to the sexually abused and victims of HIV/AIDS; a dedication to the poorest of the poor, without drifting into the Marxism of liberation theology; and a renewed commitment to fostering the traditional devotions of the people that have nurtured the Catholic faith in South America since the 16th century.



LOPEZ: Do you expect, as I’ve heard commentators suggest, that Pope Francis might “make peace with liberation theology” while back home in South America this week?

CRAUGHWELL: As superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, and then as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis has always been very clear: Any version of liberation theology that promotes a Marxist ideology, defies the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, or deforms Jesus into an insurgent Palestinian gun-runner is anathema. Standing up for the poor is one thing; calling for class warfare is another, and that is antithetical to the Catholic faith. He is not going to “make peace” with liberation theology as the leftists promote it.



LOPEZ: How did you get roped into writing the book?

CRAUGHWELL: I have been a student of Catholic history almost all of my life. When my friends at TAN/Saint Benedict Press came to me with this assignment, I just couldn’t resist the challenge. I did all the historical work while the cardinals were gearing up for the conclave. Then, once Francis stepped out on the balcony, I spent the next two weeks reading, writing, and thinking about nothing but Francis. I couldn’t have done it without the help of a very close friend, John Moorehouse, who spent years in Latin America and is fluent in Spanish. He tracked down Argentine sources about Francis and translated them for me. I can never repay John for his help, though I’ll try!



LOPEZ: You mention that the inaugural Mass for Pope Francis was on the feast of St. Joseph. Pope Francis can’t stop talking about Joseph — adding him to the Eucharistic Prayer and consecrating the Holy See to him. What’s the significance of this? What does Joseph have that modern times — and the Church — needs?

CRAUGHWELL: In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII inserted the name of St. Joseph into the canon of the Mass, what is known today as the Roman Canon, or the First Eucharistic Prayer. For reasons that defy explanation, when the new Mass was promulgated in 1969, the name of St. Joseph was deleted from the saints invoked in the three new, optional canons. It made no sense, because the significance of St. Joseph is impossible to overestimate. He is the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is the foster father of Jesus Christ. God chose him personally to watch, protect, and raise the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. After Mary, no saint is more important. St. Joseph is also the patron of the Catholic Church — over which Pope Francis has absolute authority — and the patron of all those who labor. (Joseph was a carpenter.). And as we know, Pope Francis identifies with hard-working people. Consequently, St. Joseph — husband, father, working man — is always going to be relevant.



LOPEZ:  What should people realize about Francis that might help them understand what’s happening in the Church today?

CRAUGHWELL: The Catholic Church is booming in Africa and Asia, but it has lost ground in Europe and in the Americas. Secularism has destroyed the faith of countless millions. John Paul II called for a new missionary spirit to reclaim what the Church has lost; Benedict XVI called for the same thing. But I think Francis has the best chance for jump-starting what has been an ailing missionary endeavor. His humility, his simplicity, his direct manner, his down-to-earth style appeal to so many practicing Catholics, fallen-away Catholics, and non-Catholics. This is anecdotal “evidence,” so take it for what it’s worth: A few weeks ago, I had lunch in New York with two close friends. One was baptized Catholic, and it never went beyond that. Another was raised Catholic but hasn’t practiced in decades, was not married in church, and did not baptize his daughter. Over lunch, they both spoke enthusiastically about Francis. I think the Holy Spirit has sent us the right pope at the right time. Deo gratias! as we say.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.