The First American Pope Makes a Comeback
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.