The U.S. flag flies in front of a mural of Pope Francis in New York City. Pope Francis’ 10th foreign trip will be the longest of his pontificate and, with stops in Cuba, three U.S. cities and the United Nations, it also will be a “very complex trip,” the papal spokesman said. CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters

Pope comes to a nation divided

By 
  • September 17, 2015

One nation under God will have five days this month to consider its unity and its divisions, its aspirations and its relationship with God as Pope Francis comes to challenge, console, cajole and confound 325 million Americans.

Following three days in Cuba, the Pope’s Sept. 22 to 27 visit to Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia promises conflict, drama and that human touch Francis brings to his role as the global parish priest. The Catholic Register will be there live reporting from New York and Philadelphia on a trip that will see the Pope meet President Barack Obama, address the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, visit Harlem and say Mass at Madison Square Garden before concluding with a Mass in Spanish for an anticipated one million American Catholics and busloads of Canadians in downtown Philadelphia.

“We are so divided that we will have a very divided response to him,” American theologian Steve Rodenborn told The Catholic Register.

In a globalized world of mass communications, and with a history of papal visits to American soil dating back to Pope Paul VI in 1965, there’s no novelty in a Roman pontiff, even one from Argentina, coming to America. The news in this visit isn’t so much in the Pope’s journey as it is in his encounter with Americans and with this moment in American history.

“We are attracted to him (Pope Francis) on the one hand because he speaks to who we want to be, an egalitarian country,” said Rodenborn, speaking from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. “At the same time, he challenges us to confront who we are, which is economically a country that is largely divided.”

Though Americans still think of their country and culture as a bold stand against class systems, the gaps between rich and poor, left and right, immigrant and non-immigrant, urban and suburban have come to define the America that Pope Francis will discover, said Rodenborn.

“I’m just not comfortable with the expression ‘most Americans,’ ” he said. “We’re pretty divided. Perhaps the political rhetoric in our country right now has divided us even more, and that’s really saying something.”

The Pope’s trenchant and consistent criticism of capitalism — particularly in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’ — and the inequalities it has produced are certain to bother many Americans, said Robert Dennis, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.

“He clearly is bringing his Latin American sensibility to looking at capitalism,” Dennis said.

While St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both issued stern warnings about the dangers of allowing capitalism to become more than an economic system — capitalism as a culture and a mindset — both accepted the marriage between capitalism and democracy in the West. But for Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ and many of his less formal statements, the culture of capitalism can’t be separated from the economic system. It’s a culture of winners and losers, the included and the excluded.

“I listen to a lot of Catholic thinkers in the U.S. and some of them cringe about what he’s saying. They suggest capitalism is a very good thing,” said Dennis. “It grows a lot of prosperity. It builds a middle class. It’s not all about inequality and corporatism.”

Dennis notes that when asked about the American reaction to his criticism of capitalism, Francis said he needed to study the question. It’s another example of how Pope Francis reveals himself as human, humble and willing to learn.

“I’m going to be interested in how he frames messages,” said Dennis. “Does it come across critically? Does it come across with some sympathy toward some of the successes of capitalism? We’ll find out.”

No one should make too much of the clash between Francis and American capitalism, said transplanted American Reid B. Locklin, a professor in Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College’s Christianity and culture program.

“John Paul II’s visits went very well. Pope Benedict XVI’s visit went very well. This Pope’s visits to other places have gone very well. So induction suggests to me that it’s probably going to be a terrific visit and the Pope will be very well received,” said Locklin.

The real drama of Francis’ visit won’t be his formal statements before Congress and the United Nations, which can already be guessed at, but in his encounters with ordinary Americans as he visits a Catholic school in Harlem, talks one-on-one with prisoners at Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility and greets families along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Locklin suggests.

“He will meet people and he will meet people where they are,” said Locklin. “What happens afterwards will be the spin of different ideological interests. Those ideological interests run the whole spectrum.”

There’s far more to this Pope than his analysis of economics and the environment, said Rodenborn. Of course Francis will speak to Americans in the language of their own hopes, dreams and aspirations — freedom, equality, justice. But the Pope will also come to the heart of the globalized, media-saturated, modern world to speak to the whole Church in the language of mercy.

“I love the language of justice, I really do,” said Rodenborn. “But I am perhaps more enamoured with the language of mercy, reaching out to simply everyone without exclusion... Almost everything he says, he always comes back to the coming Year of Mercy.

“But of course it’s larger than that. He sees the Church as the hospital on the battlefield, a place of free, gratuitous giving and welcoming. We’re a community first and foremost of mercy and we’ve got to be a merciful community. When people in pain reach out to us, we are there to ease that pain.”

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