America has reached peak papal madness. Twitter has created emojis to go along with hashtags like PopeinUs, PopeinDC, PopeinNY, and PopeinPhilly. While the Pope’s picture and likeness has been plastered everywhere from billboards to bobble heads to t-shirts, my question is: now that we have the Pope in America, will we be able to hear what he’s saying?
One way to hear the pope is to pay attention to the conversations he has, and this papal trip is no exception. As is his custom, the Pope gave an interview to the press on the flight from Cuba to America. Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service reported that, in response to questions about being a communist and Newsweek‘s “Is the Pope Catholic?” headline, he responded: “I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church. I follow the church and in this, I do not think I am wrong.”
That is key to understanding Pope Francis’s visit. For all of the talk about climate change, social good, or poverty, all of his statements come out of Catholic teaching. One should not expect, at least on the surface, any earth-shattering statements about doctrinal issues or specific political issues particular to the American scene. Francis, after all is a head of a global church. So whatever reading is given to his statements, those must not be filtered through popular hope or punditry, but through Catholic teaching.
Pope Francis’s straightforward messages on issues like poverty are discordant to American ears because of the religious vitriol we are constantly hearing from pundits, preachers and politicians. A vulgar Trump proclaiming his favorite book is the Bible; Ben Carson invoking a religious test for the presidency; and, to top it off, Franklin Graham remarking that President Obama’s guest list for the Papal Welcome was “sinful.” Really?
We’ve forgotten what it’s like for political or religious leaders to have a straightforward message of kindness.
Much is riding on this papal trip for both religious conservatives and liberals alike, all of whom are hoping that the Pope will prove them right about their assessments of his leadership. Mapping all of these hopes, desires, and derision onto the Pope this week may prove to be a slippery task. While Pope Francis has been clear about following the teachings of the church, it is less clear what his impact will be in the land of unbridled capitalism or “the dung of the devil.”
Whatever Pope Francis says this week will emerge from a more persuasive tone than what we are used to from political and religious leaders here in the US. The Pope is not only a head of state and a political figure, but he’s the leader of a church. As such, the political and religious messages sometimes blur together into an interesting mirror of what people, politicians and institutions want from the Pope, not the other way around. Stay tuned. It’s going to be a very interesting week.