Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Pope Francis’s Sept. 22-27 visit to the United States in September 2015, and although there are many things one could say about the outing and its aftermath, two observations seem basically indisputable.
First, this was one of the most carefully choreographed and elaborately produced ventures in the history of papal travel.
From a formal reception by U.S. President Barack Obama on the south lawn of the White House to Francis’s unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress, from the pope’s bravura performance at Madison Square Garden in New York to delivering a speech in Philadelphia from the same lectern from which Abraham Lincoln pronounced the Gettysburg Address, this was a trip that sometimes rivaled Broadway spectaculars in terms of production values.
Second, those big public events often came up short in terms of raising eyebrows and fueling discussion to impromptu, off-camera moments along the way.
Specifically, there were two unscheduled and basically private moments that generated a vast avalanche of commentary: The pope’s visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington on Sept. 23, and his private encounter with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, one day later on Sept. 24.
(A third moment arguably belongs on that list of noteworthy off-camera moments, which was the pontiff’s Sept. 27 session in Philadelphia with victims of clerical sexual abuse. Because it was widely anticipated, however, and because Pope Benedict XVI already met with victims during his own 2008 trip to the U.S., it didn’t leave quite as much of an impression.)
As is so often the case with Pope Francis, both the background and the precise meaning of the Little Sisters and the Davis meetings remains debated.
Although Francis himself and his core team may have been thinking about these two moments for some time, they basically came as a last-minute surprise to the principals.
Sister Frances Elisabeth MacKay told my Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I last month that the sisters in Washington were already inside the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23 to attend the pope’s Mass when they were told to leave and return to their home across the street, because the pope would be dropping by. They immediately tried to exit, MacKay said, but were blocked by the Secret Service and told they had to stay put, and it required something bordering on divine intervention to spring them loose.
In the case of Davis, her lawyer said the idea of meeting the pope first came up on Sept. 14, ten days before it actually happened, but the confirmation didn’t come until that day, when Davis and her husband Joe were delivered incognito to the Vatican nunciatura, or embassy, in Washington, where Francis was staying.
It wasn’t until six days later that the Vatican even confirmed the meeting took place, after the pontiff was safely back in Rome.
With the Little Sisters, the meaning of the gesture seemed fairly straight-forward at the time: They’re the public face of a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the contraception mandates imposed as part of healthcare reform, and the pope’s outreach was read as a statement of support in that fight.
Yet quietly some observers, including some senior Vatican personnel, played down such a directly political interpretation. They noted that the primary charism of the Little Sisters involves caring for the elderly and Francis has a special passion for the elderly, often referring to their isolation and abandonment as “Exhibit A” for what he calls a “throw-away culture.”
The visit, these observers say, could thus be seen as a gesture of support for the overall mission of the Little Sisters, and not exclusively as a statement about the mandates battle.
Others, naturally, choose to believe the pontiff was put up to the photo-op by a coterie of conservative American bishops invested in the culture wars, and that one can’t deduce his own position from the mere fact he agreed to say hello to a community of nuns.
As for Davis, oceans of ink have been spilled trying to parse exactly what the encounter meant.
For Davis supporters, it was a straight-up endorsement of her position. That take seemed bolstered when Francis said on the plane on the way back to Rome that conscientious objection is “a right.”
“If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,” Francis said.
On the other hand, the Vatican issued a statement after news of the meeting broke insisting that it should “not be considered a form of support” of the Kentucky clerk’s “position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”
Both privately and publicly, there were attempts to distance Francis from responsibility for the meeting, with the most frequent fall guy being Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, at the time the pope’s ambassador to Washington.
That narrative became so firmly entrenched that when Francis named a new nuncio after Viganò turned 75 in April, and after he’d put in five years in Washington, which is more or less standard practice, headlines screamed, “Pope fires envoy who arranged Davis meeting.”
It also complicated the picture to learn that on the same day, Francis met an openly gay former student, Yayo Grassi, who brought his partner to meet the pontiff at the Vatican embassy.
So, are these two moments from a year ago now a muddle, with no clear meaning?
First, let’s remember these were private encounters, and the pope doesn’t really owe anyone an explanation of what was in his head.
Second, let’s also remember that it’s a time-honored tradition for popes to be more daring in their gestures than in their speech.
For instance, when Archbishops of Canterbury would visit St. John Paul II in the Vatican, he was in the habit of presenting them with a gold pectoral cross, which is the same gift he would give to visiting Catholic archbishops during their ad limina visits. Was that a repudiation of Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 ruling on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations? Some said yes, others no, and John Paul was content to live with that ambiguity for a while as the Church figures out what it wants to say.
From the precise implications of Amoris Laetitia to what exactly he meant by “Who am I to judge?”, Francis is another pontiff obviously comfortable with ambiguity, allowing conversation about what he says and does to go on, without always feeling compelled to offer a definitive interpretation.
Even at the one-year mark, these two moments from the pope’s American swing in 2015 remain further examples of that tendency.
The ambiguity may be frustrating for those who crave insta-precision, but it’s also a boon to Catholic conversation, because let’s face it — debating “what did the pope mean, and when did he mean it?”, which we no doubt will be doing again, is a terrific indoor sport.