Pope Francis’ American Encounter: Re-Inventing the Catholic Church and Beyond

Pope Francis with Congressional leaders on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol (Sept. 24, 2015); public domain photo.
Pope Francis with Congressional leaders on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol (Sept. 24, 2015); US Government photo.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

The impact of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States may take years to fully assess. Will his intensive five-day East Coast trip re-energize American Catholics? Are his various social messages likely to alter the thinking of government and world leaders? Will the lives of those who attended events at which he spoke or participated be forever altered? What will be the impact of his message on interreligious relations? What might American Jews learn from this unique and historic encounter?

Initial polling data reflective of his visit point to his “high favorability ratings” and his positive impact on Americans in general and Catholics in particular. A poll released one week ago by MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist showed that 51 percent of Americans viewed Francis favorably, with just 9 percent of the respondents holding an unfavorable view. Network ratings would likewise reflect the curiosity and interest that Americans have had for this extraordinary religious encounter. As one commentator has noted: “no five days has so captured the American public since the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy.”

Pope Francis, the 266th Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, may represent the most significant social figure of this decade. His tenure as Pope that only began in 2013 has already been marked by a series of major policy and operational initiatives designed to reinvigorate and modernize not only the infrastructure of the Roman Curia, the internal governance system of the Church, but more significantly to reposition the doctrine and message of the Vatican with its followers worldwide.

Clearly, the Holy See had framed a set of goals for this, the Pontiff’s first visit to the United States, not to mention the separate and particular priorities of American Catholic leadership. Beyond introducing this Pope to the American public, Rome was specifically interested in re-energizing the Church in this country in the aftermath of the priest sex scandals, its budgetary crisis, and the loss over time of significant numbers of the faithful. Further, the Vatican was particularly concerned that His Holiness be able to reach younger audiences, women, and families as a way to reconnect them to the message of Roman Catholicism. These particular objectives would be achieved in each of the three city venues, involving the Pope’s visit to Catholic University (Washington), his program at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem (New York) and his participation in the Conference on World Families (Philadelphia), along with his homilies at both St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Cathedral Basilica Saints Peter and Paul.

In orchestrating such a visit, the Church was particularly anxious not only to achieve its core institutional interests but to satisfy the priorities of its host Dioceses. For Timothy Cardinal Dolin of New York, the refurbishing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the raising of new scholarship monies for schools was directly linked to the Pope’s announced plans to come to the United States. Indeed, for Catholic Charities the emphasis of this trip would be to highlight the scope of that agency’s social service agenda; this would take the Pontiff to four specific sites: his encounter in Washington with the homeless and poor, his visit to the parish school in New York, his conversations at Independence Hall with immigrants, and his meeting with prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional facility. The intention here was to align the Holy See’s overarching social justice focus with the core priorities and work of this four billion dollar a year anchor institution of the American Church.

The visit was a carefully orchestrated interplay of Church related priorities with the symbolism of the Pope being connected with the key political and historic sites of this nation, including his presence at the White House and Congress and his visits to the 9/11 Memorial as well as Independence Hall.

In addition to embracing clergy and the religious, the visit was designed to create selective opportunities for key Catholic laity to meet the Pope or to join him at various high profile sessions. Beyond specific references introduced into his remarks about prominent American figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, the Pope sought to introduce prominent Catholic personalities, including Dorothy Day, Father Tomas Merton, and St. Katharine Drexel. The intentional design here, according to Vatican sources, was orchestrated to connect American Catholics to their own history and the significant contributions of these individuals to the Church and the larger society.

In many ways the Pope’s core goals for this trip were reflected in his various messages involving the reinvention of the Church in order to create a “third way” without formally altering the core theological documents of Roman Catholicism. Moving the focus of the Church from “buildings to the street,” the Pope is seeking to highlight the Church’s work on social activism, reasserting the role and power of women within the Church, and emphasizing the “personal responsibility of the faithful” which is seen as the central motif for the “new Church.” In rejecting spiritual self-centeredness, the Holy Father is seeking to reconstruct the energy and emphasis of the Church’s message outward to the community. In seeking to deflect the attention to his persona, the Pope would note: “It is I who is following the Church.”

In requesting that his audiences “pray for him,” the Pope was invoking Pope Leo XIII’s imperative of reminding the faithful of the unity of the Church as symbolized by the Papacy; but such a call was also directed to both Catholics and non-Catholics by way of a reminder that the burden of “repairing the world,” to invoke a Jewish frame of reference, must be seen as a collective obligation, one that can not be left to anyone participant but as a shared venture of humankind.

Just as the Jewish community is confronting its new demographic realities, “Catholics by Choice” may be the new mantra being articulated by the Holy Father, where individuals are empowered to embrace the message and work of the Church. Re-inviting Catholics back into the community of the faithful represented a central theme of his visit.

The Jewish Counterpoint:

Many of the Pontiff’s messages would seem to have profound value and importance to the Jewish community. Four core themes would be particularly relevant to American Jews:

  • Commitment to Our Shared Humanity and the “Common Good”
  • Focus on the Global Environment
  • Emphasis on Social Justice
  • Engagement with Immigration

In each of these areas the positions outlined by His Holiness would resonate with an array of Jewish interest groups who share similar concerns related to international human rights, environmental policy, social and economic priorities, and immigration law and practice.

While the Church’s positions on abortion, gay marriage, and specific Church-State policies differ from the mainstream views held by American Jewish organizations, there has been over the decades extensive cooperation with the Conference of Bishops, national Catholic institutions, and local diocesan leadership in furthering areas of mutual interest to our respective communities.

The Holy Father’s commitment to interreligious understanding and his specific and long standing personal engagement in Catholic-Jewish dialogue would define his priesthood from the outset of his career. For this Pope the interfaith agenda must be seen as integral part of his personal story and his formal ministry.

As noted in the 9/11 Memorial program on Friday, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), which has reframed the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. This central document and the supplementary work that has followed would open the door for Catholic-Jewish understanding and in turn has created a pathway for expanding these connections.

Of specific interest during his visit, Pope Francis would reference on Wednesday Yom Kippur in his public remarks, sending greetings to the community on this the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. Similarly, he would acknowledge a day later the tragedy at Mecca following the reported deaths of hundreds of Muslim pilgrims who were on Hajj. These public acknowledgements would add to the aurora of his inclusive sets of messages and his desire to promote interfaith understanding.

In His Own Words:

The Pope’s central doctrine published shortly after he came to the Vatican, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joys of the Gospel”) offers specific insights about how His Holiness is seeking to reconstruct the Church.

In that text many of the ideas referenced in his historic American visit would be reintroduced. These included the following:

  • Thinking broadly and boldly, as he would write: “A faith which is authentic always implies a profound desire to change the world.”
  • Sharing with his constituencies his vision for the Church.
  • Offering a global social and economic message as referenced by his public presentations.
  • Learning to reinvent the Church by going beyond its doors to engage others, as demonstrated by his various public and civic activities during his American visit and his call for all peoples to share in framing the “common good.”
  • Acknowledging that if there are no fundamental changes, the institution will collapse, as cited in his remarks directed to American Church leaders.
  • Recognizing dissent and division within the Church and seeing it as an opportunity for creative engagement and dialogue, as he would acknowledge the Church’s many institutional and policy challenges.
  • His Holiness left no doubt about his role as the primary architect of the Church’s focus on social service, inclusion, and justice.
  • Reaffirming key relationships, including the following: “Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel…,” his outreach and commitment to building this connection, and others, has helped to define his Papacy.

Upon Reflection:

This historic visit will be assessed for years to come. What will be this Pope’s legacy on the American Church, and how will his visit impact the role of religion in this society?

In studying how this trip unfolded, with its carefully designed scenarios and highly focused messages, one can come to fully appreciate the subtle yet real power of the Vatican and the role of the Pontiff. No doubt, this “journey to America” has come to symbolize the potential impact that religion and religious leadership can have on society. This can also be seen as a case study in how a leader moves to reinvent an institution while reframing its messages to effectively reach not only his core adherents but to impact the lives of millions of others!

Facing an array of challenges, this visit was critical to the future of the Catholic Church in America. Beyond the Pope’s effort to reinvigorate the Church and its leadership, what will be the sustaining impact on the place of religion in this nation?

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. To read his collection of writings, visit: www.thewindreport.com