Saint Francis in America

Pope Francis at the Catholic University of America (CUA)

The five days Pope Francis just spent so busily in America – following a schedule of high-pressure meetings, talks, addresses, quick visits, walking tours, parades, very public Masses, and much else (a schedule that would have exhausted a much younger man) – may in the end have changed the United States, the world, and Pope Francis himself more than we can now imagine. Although the effects of this visit may not be entirely good, let us begin with the good news first – very good news.

At the huge outdoor Mass at the Catholic University of America, on the great lawn outside the East Door of the Basilica, the pope celebrated one of the most prayerful and reverential Masses that many of us have ever experienced. The brilliant September air was perfectly still, and so was the crowd. At moments one could hear sparrows singing in the trees. It was as though all knew they were in the presence of a saint, and that his soul was deeply rapt in the Mass, and praying to deepen the communion of all together.

In his sermon, characteristically, Pope Francis mostly stressed the “Good News” of the Gospels. He said that God, whose presence almost all humans have experienced in their lives (atheists in history have been pathetically few), is not hostile to human beings, and not even indifferent to them. Rather, the Good News trumpets that God’s nature is Love, and he comes to us with mercy, offering us his friendship. “Where God’s love is, and friendship, there God is,” the ancient Christian hymn sings in pure ringing notes: Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est!

Mercy is exactly the theme on which Pope John Paul II dwelt in one of his major encyclicals (Dives in Misericordia, 1980). All during his long pontificate, John Paul II strongly promoted the theme of mercy, and in fact introduced Divine Mercy Sunday into the liturgical calendar. As in so many other ways (but not all), Pope Francis walks in continuity with themes introduced by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his two closest predecessors. He is likely to be known to history as “the Pope of Mercy.”

#share#In another strain of continuity with John Paul II, Francis, in his address to the U.S. Congress, repeated his high praise for business as a noble enterprise, wealth creation as a necessary step to the distribution of wealth, and the importance of learning of the habits and virtues required for the moral and financial independence of mature, healthy human citizens.

At Catholic U., Francis spoke eloquently of “solidarity” in our shared “cultural reserves.” He suggested that the best help for the poor is “reciprocal subsidiarity,” that is, each of us being helpful to our neighbors. He invoked the hands-on care for the down-and-out shown by Dorothy Day at Hospitality House of the Daily Worker.

In America, Francis confronted a new kind of people, a new kind of culture, and an economy different from any other in the world (even Britain’s, Germany’s, and Japan’s). He picked up the difference very quickly: economic initiative, enterprise – almost universal enterprise. And he changed his rhetoric and tone rather remarkably, from things we had heard from him before.


There were dozens of images of Francis which remain (maybe indelibly) imprinted on our minds. We wondered if any other statesman in the world could have earned this kind of respect for his presence before the United Nations. He seemed to us to personify a new role of the papacy in history, commanding the respect not only of Christian cultures, but of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and other religious cultures of the world. He seemed to be the natural compass of the world’s conscience, even among those who disagree with him. He held their respect.

This impression was deepened at the most moving ceremony of his trip, the honoring of the victims of September 11, 2001 at Ground Zero, in the ruins of the World Trade Center. The pope’s words went right to our hearts when he suggested that the slow stream of pool water dropping off into the abyss seemed to carry off humanity’s tears. His every accent was pitch-perfect in front of all those religious leaders and other guests, direct as an arrow.


But what shone through this pope most of all was his Christlikeness, the power of his manner and his seriousness and his large heart to evoke the image of Jesus Christ on earth. Not everyone thinks highly of what Christ started on earth. But to a surprising degree, all seem to be touched still by images of Christ’s simplicity – the kindness, tender care for the needy, humility (a tiny Fiat, not a Rolls Royce), of a man ready to wash the feet of all, to hold in his arms a child with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, to greet a gay person warmly, and to encourage a conscientious dissenter “to stay strong,” while giving her a hug (as if to make up for her jail time). This simplicity has become an important ideal even for secular humanists (such as Bertrand Russell, Richard Rorty, and Dr. Rieux of The Plague), self-described “progressives,” and others.

What shone through most of all was his Christlikeness, his power to evoke the image of Jesus Christ on earth.

The image of the poor and humble Christ is brought to the fore wherever Francis goes. And it turns out that most of the world awakens to that call. Nearly all, at least in the West, but even beyond that, have internalized ideals of compassion, solidarity, and the critical importance of keeping conscience sacred at all costs. Liberty of conscience is a crucial condition for the preservation of liberty on earth, and universal compassion is now a condition for human progress.

And yet. And yet. Honesty compels us to notice some dangers in the example of Francis. If he is wrong in some of his extreme expressions of disdain for capitalism, which economic system on earth does he recommend to the poor? Which system does he judge has the capacity to reduce poverty fast and globally? When emigrants flee from their homes to seek a better life outside their own nations, toward which economic system do they rush to find hope and opportunity? Possibly, his American talks suggest, Pope Francis is turning away from his earlier scathing critiques of capitalism, and the mean and unworthy motives he had earlier been imputing to wealth creators.

And what does Francis actually mean by “a world of inclusion”? In which economies are people better off to be included? From which sorts of economy do they flee?

A portion of Catholic social teaching that Pope Francis has not yet invoked is the creation theology and economic personalism of that pioneer in this area, Saint John Paul the Great.

Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum has ever since been considered the founding document of Catholic Social Teaching, representing its first gropings toward “Social Justice.” In 1991, after the fall of Communism and its wall, and after much searching on his own, John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus as a serious reflection on the intervening 100 years.

After surveying the possibilities, Saint John Paul II recommended to the bishops of the world “the free-market economy,” and for three reasons: It laid out the best road for the advancement of the world’s poor (para. 42); it offered a better explanation of the causes of the creation of wealth, including the virtues and habits required (para. 32); and it represented all that had been learned by experience since 1945 about the inherent failures of merely welfare states (para. 48).

We might expect Francis to turn more attention toward these prescient passages as he continues to tour all the economic alternatives on this planet. He told journalists he was trying to be faithful to all of Catholic social doctrine. It seems he is.

On another matter, Pope Francis sometimes talks with great certainty about matters he has not been trained to deal with. He sometimes allows close advisers to disparage those who are not intimidated by a highly politicized scientific “consensus.” Can there be “science” where there is so much political pressure and public mockery?

Is the pope alert to the fact that to put climate control into the hands of a world government is to create a center of enormous power, able to bring on world decline by wildly erroneous miscalculations? He has not yet indicated that.

#related#As some in Europe have already learned to joke, Greens are like watermelons and tomatoes. They begin the spring green, but by late summer have turned very red. All movement is toward the state. Consider, then, that in any likely world government, cultures that are growing fastest and are most inimical to the West — and to Jews and Christians in particular — are most likely to predominate and to dictate terms.

And climate has always been a fickle master. Climate history is complex, tangled, and not easy to explain: warm, even hot weather (when Greenland was not yet covered with ice), then a thousand-year Ice Age, and now a “global warming” that also does not show up as predicted. Time spans are long and changeable. There have been cosmic forces at play, from giant meteorites to solar explosions. Breakthroughs in science regularly overturn the conventional “consensus,” but the conventional wisdom at any one time is seldom questioned. If Francis turns out to be wrong on climate control, his mistake may end as a far greater blow to the Church than the Galileo Affair.


But still we cherish our memories of the humble Francis in our midst. One evangelical clergyman, normally quite anti-papist, told us that Francis may be the most Christlike figure on the planet today. Journalists seem to be paying him uncommon respect, even praising him, and some even suggest that the presence of Francis in our country may have changed millions of people, many not at all Catholic, in a more Christlike direction for their and our “betterment.” In the streets and in the crowds of Washington during the pope’s visit, one could hear many such comments — “I’m not even Catholic, but I love this man.”

Whatever his inevitable human limitations, the pope came to America, under God, to shed many graces. He won immense affection, which grew from day to day, and palpably followed him into the night sky as he headed back to Rome.

– Michael Novak and Paul Adams are the authors of the forthcoming Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is (Encounter).



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