Guest commentary by Philip Wingeier-Rayo
Pope Francis just completed his first visit to the U.S. during of three-city tour of Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Not without controversy, the pope’s six-day visit contained something for everyone — including many firsts in American religious and political life.
An official welcome
The pope began his visit flying from Cuba to Andrews Air Force Base on September 22nd where he was received by President Obama, his wife Michelle, their two daughters and vice president Joe Biden and his wife Jill, who are life-long Roman Catholics. After an official welcome at the White House the next morning, Pope Francis made history by becoming the first pope to address Congress. Later, in New York, he became the first pope to address the United Nations. In addition on his itinerary, he celebrated a worship service at the 9/11 memorial in New York City and addressed the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in addition to visiting schools and celebrating mass in all three cities. At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Pope bestowed sainthood upon Junipero Serra, the first Hispanic to receive this honor and the first canonization on American soil. In between official events, Pope Francis was accessible to the crowds to offer an occasional greeting or blessing en route to his next engagement, as evidenced by the thousands of pictures on social media.
Even before Pope Francis arrived in the U.S., he was already making an impact. He was instrumental in getting President Obama and Raul Castro to begin a conversation, which led to the restoration of diplomatic ties last year. So the Pope’s decision to enter the U.S. from Cuba is more than coincidental. In his address to Congress, Pope Francis indirectly referred to these negotiations: “I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past.” He went on to say that “when countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue — a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons — new opportunities open up for all.” These themes of new opportunities, hopes and compassion were repeated throughout the pope’s visit.
Leading with humility and compassion
During his visit, Pope Francis did not assume an authoritarian attitude, but rather a more humble position of dialogue and engagement. He even asked Americans “to pray for me.” When introducing controversial topics such as climate change and immigration, Pope Francis intentionally used phrases like “I would like to take this opportunity to dialog,” or “we need a conversation that includes everyone.” Then the pope went on to express his support for environmental justice and challenge the exploitation of natural resources as a “boundless thirst for power and material prosperity.”
The pope challenged the American people to be more compassionate toward those who are vulnerable, referring both to the current refugee crisis in Europe as well as to immigrants in the U.S. As the first Latin American to be elected pope, he drew upon his experience as the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina and said that most Americans are the descendants of immigrants. Speaking with a heavy accent in his prepared speech for Congress, he asked the lawmakers to set aside political differences and be compassionate of those who “travel north in search of a better life.” In an effort to demonstrate his commitment to the most vulnerable, the pope declined a lunch invitation from congressional leaders and instead elected to eat lunch with the homeless at St. Patrick’s Church hosted by Catholic Charities stating that “there is no justification for homelessness.”
Reaching out to specifically to the Hispanic population and families
Throughout his visit, Pope Francis appealed to Hispanics delivering his homilies in Spanish to be translated into English by an interpreter. While Hispanics constitute a significant sector of the Roman Catholic Church in America, only 55 percent of Hispanics consider themselves Catholic — down from 67 percent as recently as 2010. At the same time, an increasing number of Hispanics are Protestant (22 percent) and still others are religiously unaffiliated. Interspersed throughout the television coverage of the pope’s visit were strategically placed “evangomercials” run by the Catholic Church inviting the faithful to “come home.”
In an unprogrammed encounter, one immigrant family, originally from Ecuador, traveled with a group from their parish in Philadelphia to Newark to catch a glimpse of the pope. Standing in a park along the pope’s route, Amable and Narcisa Chuquirima held up their 4-month-old boy in his baptismal clothes. As the pope approached the mother yelled “Papa! Papa!” (the Spanish word for pope), and all of a sudden a security guard snatched him and took the boy to the pope for a blessing. Afterwards in an interview with the New York Times she said, “I felt like my son was an angel … It is a blessing for our family, for our parish.”
The pope’s visit ended in Philadelphia. He made a call for the unity of the family and called it “a factor of hope, of life, of resurrection.” As expected, he touched on abortion by stating his support for “the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages” – however, this phrase was also used in his address to Congress in the context of his opposition to the death penalty.
Not without criticism
While there were many blessings and uplifting moments, the pope’s visit was not without controversies. The day after the pope addressed Congress and met with John Boehner, the speaker of the house resigned. A devout Catholic who had advocated and planned for the pope’s visit, Boehner chose an interesting time to announce his resignation. In a press conference Boehner stated, “Last night I started thinking about this and this morning I woke up and said my prayers — as I always do — and I decided today’s the day I’m going to do this. As simple as that.”
The canonization of missionary Juniper Serra, who served in the California mission system 250 years ago, was criticized because of his participation in the cultural genocide of native peoples, performing mass baptisms and forcing people to give up their language, culture and way of life. Fifty California tribes condemned the canonization. Just days after the canonization, the L.A. Times reported the statue of Serra at Carmel Mission in California was vandalized.
One of the interesting developments of the pope’s U.S. tour was how he altered his plans. He ditched a more political speech and gave a more impromptu homily on the American family to a crowd of more than 100,000 gathered at Benjamin Franklin Parkway for his final mass on Sunday afternoon. Rather than discussing housing, health care and workers’ rights as his original speech had intended, the pope spoke off-the-cuff and said that God likes “to knock on the door of families and to find the families who love each other — families who bring up their children to grow and to move forward. Who create, who develop a society of truth, goodness and beauty.”
Victims of clergy sexual abuse were dissatisfied with the pope’s handling of this issue. In fact, toward the beginning of his trip he praised the priests, bishops and nuns for enduring the scandal, and this angered the victims even more for not acknowledging their suffering. So, on the last day of his tour, the pope did meet with a gathering of five abuse victims in Philadelphia and stated, “God weeps.” However, some of the carefully selected victims were abused by teachers or family members – as if to spread the blame beyond the church and imply that priests are not the only perpetrators. Activists continue to call out the pope and demand greater transparency and accountability.
Critics of the pope’s stance on immigration and his plea for greater compassion toward refugees complained that he had not addressed the plight of persecuted Christians around the world, nor had he condemned Isis. Even during his speech at the U.N., the pope chose to focus on the victims and the “castoffs.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect to the pope’s visit came to light after he had already boarded the plane for Rome. “Inside the Vatican” reported that Kim Davis had a private meeting with the pope. Apparently the Vatican had set up the meeting prior to the pope’s visit. He hosted Davis for a 15-minute cordial visit in Washington where he reportedly thanked her for her courage and told her to “stay strong.” NPR reporter Sylvia Poggioli reported that while on the flight to Rome, the pope was asked if he would support government officials who cannot in good conscience discharge, for example, same-sex marriage licenses. Poggioli reported that the pope, without referring directly to Kim Davis, said that “conscientious objection is a right that is part of every human right.”
While Kim Davis is a particularly controversial figure in the current American religious and political landscape, the pope’s grounding principle of religious liberty and freedom of conscience is a basic human right and a building block of American society. The role of religion in human rights was addressed early in the pope’s visit before the news of Kim Davis broke when he said in his speech to Congress, “In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in society.
Let us hope and pray that the legacy of the Pope’s visit to America, even with its controversies, will contribute toward the building and strengthening of society.
PHILIP WINGEIER-RAYO is associate professor of evangelism, mission and Methodist studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He served as a missionary for 15 years in Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua, and in the Rio Grande Valley. He has published numerous articles and two books: “Cuban Methodism: The Untold Story of Survival and Revival” and “Where are the Poor? An Ethnographic Study of a Base Christian Community and a Pentecostal Church in Mexico.” He is married and has three children.