Something absolutely incredible happened in America this past week: Pope Francis.
That’s not the incredible part. Pope John Paul II visited the United States, as did Pope Benedict XVI. What’s incredible is how America responded to all of this.
For the past several years, at what seems to be an increasing rate, Christianity and Christians have taken a hard smack from the American culture. It’s not okay any more to be Christian in public. You can’t pray if anyone might hear you; you can’t ask anyone to join you to pray. You can’t have religious convictions and be credible as a political leader. You can’t put the Ten Commandments in a public place, nor erect a nativity at Christmas. If you dare put the baby Jesus in your front yard, someone’s going to steal Him, which is funny because whoever took Him will also tell you they have no want of Him. Churches are under attack. Principles are under attack. We’re making fun of people for believing in one thing or another. And slowly but surely, we’re pushing “freedom of religion” out of the Constitution and into the closet because, well, someone left the door open and everybody’s skeletons fell out - Christians, non-Christians, gay, straight, rich, poor, black, white. Everybody.
We’re fighting over issues that are close to our theology - issues like the right to life. Human rights. Civil rights. Equality. All of these are, at their heart, Christian values, but because they’re in politics, we’re not allowed to bring religion into them. As if putting God behind them somehow invalidates what we believe. Or lessens it. Or whatever.
But now, there’s Pope Francis. And something strange is happening here.
This very same America who wants so desperately to draw hard lines between God and politics showed no protest when Francis spoke on the White House lawn, when he met with the current President of the United States, when he addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, or when he spoke to the United Nations. No one was outside the gates picketing the influence of religion in politics. No one was protesting the “place” of the Pope as being “in the church” and not in the Constitution. At least, if people were voicing these opinions, the mainstream media - yes, the champion of the anti-religious movement - wasn’t covering it. You’ve heard no mention of such a thing.
Although you’ve heard a lot of mention of the Pope, and this, too, is strange. America wouldn’t tolerate “breaking news” coverage of any religious authority figure doing anything religious-y. Nobody’s breaking in with Rick Warren addressing crowds of tens of thousands. Nobody’s running non-stop commentary on Pastor Bill’s (made-up pastor) interaction with a community. It’s not a trending headline that Pastor Jack (also made-up) is having lunch with the homeless today. Because if it were, the people would cry out and scream, That’s not news! Get that religion off my screen!
But America is not only putting up with the Pope; they are fixated on him. They’re fascinated by him. They’re tuning in to hear what he says; they’re following his journey through our fair and free land. They’re listening when he speaks in broken English, in a country that’s frustrated by having to press 1 for English on a menu.
There are so many thoughts I’m having about America’s reaction to Pope Francis on our soil, in our Congress, in our politics. The first is this: I don’t know if that means Pope Francis is doing something beautifully right or horribly wrong. Maybe America is putting up with all this, even relishing all this, because Pope Francis is doing something beautifully right. Maybe his religion, and his exercise thereof, just doesn’t offend anybody. If that’s the case, we need to take note of what he’s doing and how he’s doing it so that we, too, can be Christians with influence, without offending anybody. The alternate may also be true. Maybe Pope Francis isn’t considered a religious authority at all by many Americans. Maybe he’s come to be known merely as a political figure of sorts, and we’re just putting up with his theological egocentricities because we like his policies on a political level. If this is the case, we must mourn for the state of the church - whether we are Catholic or not - for we were never meant to be politicians. And maybe, it must be recognized, it is a mixture of both - that his religion is purely practiced and inoffensive to a sensitive public and that his policies are favorable politically. Whatever the case, we must take notice of the way America, as a whole, is responding to the pontiff.
And we also must say this, in reference to that: America is, at her core, still a nation hungry for God. Isn’t that what we’re seeing? The faithful rejoice, but for once, the masses are silent about it. I mean, silent. Is this because the masses are not so removed from God as they pretend to be? Is this because at his core, every man longs for some measure of God? Is this because....why is this? It’s because we are a people hungry for God. Many of us are hearing God’s Word, God’s promise, God’s morals and ethics and values and ideas spoken back into our American community, and we’re loving it. Others are hearing for the first time, even if only because they can’t get away from the coverage of this Pope. But we’re hearing, and it’s stirring something within us - Catholic or not, Christian or not.
I say all that to say this - we have to pay attention. We have to take notice of what’s going on, with all of America’s eyes turned toward the theological. Let’s all take a collective deep breath and soak this moment in, and then let’s figure out why it’s working. Let’s figure out what’s going right about this. Because there doesn’t have to be tension in our society between piety and politics. Of this much, we can be sure because it’s happening right now. Right before our very eyes. How? Why?
I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t know all the underlying influences. But I would venture a guess and say this: if we could get love right and speak with the same gentleness, humility, and grace as the man who has turned America’s ear this past week, I think we’d be on to something.