Reframing the question about Pope Francis' trip to America

Reframing the question about Pope Francis’ trip to America

A break-the-mold pope, the first ever from his part of the world, is preparing for a keenly anticipated visit to the United States. He comes amid perceptions that he may not be fully sold on America, and America may not be fully sold on him. He’s got astronomic approval ratings

A break-the-mold pope, the first ever from his part of the world, is preparing for a keenly anticipated visit to the United States. He comes amid perceptions that he may not be fully sold on America, and America may not be fully sold on him.

He’s got astronomic approval ratings and is a media icon, but there are also unmistakable signals that he sees the United States as part of the problem as much as the solution. Many of the pope’s leading critics are Americans, inside and outside the Church, and his friends have warned him he may be in for a bumpy ride.

That could easily describe the run-up to Pope Francis’ Sept. 22-27 visit to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, given the Latin American pontiff’s sharp anti-capitalist rhetoric and his clear preference for the peripheries of the world as opposed to its perceived centers.

Instead, however, it precisely captures the lay of the land ahead of St. John Paul II’s August 1993 trip to Denver for World Youth Day. Despite predictions of disaster, that 1993 outing exceeded expectations and had a lasting impact, giving the Polish pope and his Vatican team a more favorable impression of the United States.

“One can date a shift in Vatican attitudes from that moment,” said Cardinal James Francis Stafford, who was John Paul’s host in Denver in 1993, in an interview a decade ago.

Today, it’s fair to wonder if Francis’ outing will have a similar salutary effect. At stake is not simply his personal attitude, but the overall relationship between the US and Rome, which, for better or worse, has considerable geopolitical and cultural import.

Naturally, there are differences between then and now.

For one thing, by 1993 John Paul II had already visited the United States four times (though two were fueling stops in Alaska while on his way someplace else.) The vibe had been massively positive, in part because John Paul and the Americans saw themselves as allies in the struggle against Communism.

Yet ahead of the Denver trip, John Paul II had developed a warier perspective, closer to what Francis may be feeling today, mostly because it was his first US visit after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After 1989, John Paul’s focus turned to what a post-Cold War world ought to look like, and on that front, it was less clear to him that America was a natural partner.

For one thing, John Paul was every bit as skeptical about reliance on the free market alone as Francis. Moreover, he was alarmed about what he saw as a spreading “culture of death,” at a time when leading American Catholic theologians were pushing the envelope on contraception, abortion, and gay rights, and the new Clinton administration was steering the US toward support for global population control.

Beyond that, Roman mandarins were leery of staging a World Youth Day in the American West, since the US is not a Catholic culture and has no real tradition of pilgrimage. They framed the Rocky Mountain region as an exotic blend of Bible-thumping Protestants and rugged individualists who would either be hostile to the pope, or, worse still, indifferent.

As it turns out, however, Denver was a runaway triumph.

The 500,000 youth from across the country who showed up to cheer the pope’s every move were wildly enthusiastic. The city rolled out the red carpet, and American media coverage was both extensive and overwhelmingly positive.

John Paul’s magic with crowds on that trip occasioned Bill Clinton’s famous tribute: “I sure as hell would hate to be running against him for mayor.”

American bishops said later that they were welcomed with greater fondness in Rome, and John Paul’s team was more inclined to see US Catholics as partners. Domestically, the trip put youth ministry on the map in America and helped inspire an entire generation of “John Paul II” priests and bishops.

Will Francis’ visit produce a similar “Era of Good Feelings”? While many factors will come into play, a key element may be which face of the United States the pope encounters.

If Francis sees the worst of America — our polarized politics, our sometimes savage media culture, our occasional myopia about the challenges facing the rest of the world — the experience could leave him cold.

On the other hand, if Francis sees us at our best — our deep religiosity despite decades of secularization, our generosity, our dynamism and creativity, and so on — then he may come away more positively inclined.

For American Catholics, there’s an obvious incentive to put their best foot forward. Not only do Catholics in any nation want the pope to like their Church, but a favorable climate in the Vatican makes it easier to move the ball on US Catholic priorities.

You don’t have to be Catholic, however, to grasp what’s on the line.

The United States is still the world’s most important “hard power,” and the Vatican, for all its ups and downs, remains the most important “soft power.” It’s the only major world religion with its own diplomatic corps, and the pope — any pope — enjoys a unique bully pulpit. Just ask former Soviet apparatchiks, for instance, what can happen when these two forces are in alignment.

It’s thus in everyone’s interest that these two players be on good speaking terms. Francis recently vowed to study American criticism of his anti-capitalism rhetoric, and it will be far easier to pursue that dialogue if he sees Americans as friends.

To put the point differently, most pre-trip coverage so far has focused on how Pope Francis will play in the States. Perhaps an equally important question, however, is how the States will play with Francis.

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