This week, for the first time, Pope Francis comes to America.
And both American Catholics and non-Catholics can expect to be enchanted and inspired, pleased and provoked as the man many call “The People’s Pope” touches down in three U.S. cities — Washington, New York and finally Philadelphia.
Historically, when popes venture from Vatican City, there are mammoth spectacles. They are met with a global fanfare that far exceeds the likes of traveling world leaders or shiny pop stars. But even Pope Francis’ 5 1/2-day visit comes with magnified expectations.
In just 2 1/2 years at the helm of the Catholic Church, this humble, Argentine-born man has captivated both the masses and the news media with an easy demeanor, fatherly and friendly tone, compassion toward the poor and an embrace of a Spartan lifestyle that eschews papal finery. At the same time, Pope Francis has alarmed traditional Catholics who feel he is too lenient and does not do enough to stress adherence to well-established Catholic teachings against gay unions and abortion.
While Francis has not changed bedrock church doctrine against divorce, abortion, gay marriage, or married and female priests, he is more willing to talk about those issues, and acknowledge the reality that many Catholics disagree with or ignore.
Francis’ famous words of “Who am I to judge” in reference to gay Catholic priests was a welcome opening to families struggling with Catholic teaching that LGBT people are “disordered.” Similarly surprising — given his predecessors’ hard-line emphasis on orthodoxy — were comments that Catholic leaders shouldn’t be “obsessed” with social issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage, to the exclusion of stressing service to the poor.
That’s pleased more progressive Catholics because “he’s not talking about what we’re doing wrong. He’s talking about what we can do right,” said Jane Knuth, 57, of Portage and a former longtime employee at Kalamazoo’s St. Vincent de Paul Thrift store. The pope, she said “is not concentrating on our sins.”
But that notion agitates more traditional Catholics, who say the mainstream media concentrate on Francis’ conviviality rather than the church’s unchanged teachings.
“Pope Francis is more colloquial,” said Al Kresta, a host on Ann Arbor-based Ave Maria Catholic radio. “Pope Francis fully upholds and confirms the teachings of his predecessors …. In fact, there is no daylight between them on Catholic doctrine. He is simply a more engaging public personality than” the retired Pope Benedict XVI.
Mostly, Pope Francis reflects compassion and tenderness, and “is unburdened by the chains of the office and the weight of history,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, most recently the president of Windsor’s Assumption University and a Vatican English-language spokesman.
“And he’s a man of immense joy,” said Rosica. In America, “all of those things will be visible.”
The pope’s message is contagious in good and bad ways
Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron often is exposed to Pope Francis’ popularity on planes and in airports. People often say: “Great pope you got there,” or “Love your pope.” While Vigneron, who will be at papal events in Washington and Philly, doesn’t think Francis is a revolutionary, he does say “he certainly gets rock star coverage.”
Vigneron is hoping the pope’s presence and pronouncements in the U.S. will “give us some juice in our efforts for the new evangelization.” While the Catholic Church remains the nation’s largest denomination, the number of Catholics in the northeast and Midwest is declining.
The six-county Detroit archdiocese is a “shrinking community,” Vigneron has noted. In the Detroit area, the number of Catholic baptisms and marriages is down 50% since 2000. Overall, as many as one in three people raised Catholic in the U.S. have left the faith.
“He’s thawed some people’s fixed states of mind about the gospel,” said Vigneron. Francis hasn’t changed the church’s moral doctrines, but he is “showing that it’s for fallen people and that the church will be patient with us as we try to respond.”
“I think sometimes people had gotten into the habit that the gospel way of life was hanging on to outmoded customs for the sake of nostalgia for old times,” said Vigneron.
What’s been dubbed “The Francis Effect” also appeared to play a role in Vigneron’s comments in August that dialed back previous harsh statements that Catholics who supported gay marriage should refrain from receiving the sacrament of communion.
“Pope Francis doesn’t want the church to be a fortress walling people out, but, in his words, a field hospital for the wounded,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect” (Rowman & Littlefield, $32). “He offers a unique opportunity for the American hierarchy to build a more welcoming, healing church.”
Francis’ words have opened doors for some who felt shut out of the Catholic faith in which they were raised. Many non-Catholics, as well, find him enthralling, and they’re paying attention to him much more so than his predecessor, experts say.
Still, Francis’ statements have left some conservative Catholic activists confused and dispirited.
“Most of my listeners love and respect him even if challenged by his call to discipleship,” said Catholic radio host Kresta. “Some have a mature adult criticism of his word choices, his timing, his refusal to correct mis-impressions, his imprecise framing of social issues, his willingness to make a mess and shake things up.”
Local antiabortion activist Monica Migliorino Miller ripped into Francis on her antiabortion Citizens for a Pro-Life Society website in 2013 with the essay “Unpacking the Pope’s PR Debacle.” after the pope’s comment that Catholics do not solely need to be “obsessed” with abortion.
The pope, Miller wrote, left antiabortion activists “in the lurch” and “thrown to the wolves.” She also questioned whether “Francis is truly aware of the extent of the injustice that abortion represents” or if “he sufficiently appreciates what it costs pro-lifers to save babies from abortion.”
Miller said this week she understands that Pope Francis is trying to advance many church teachings, but she said the “obsessed” remark had immediate impact. Her husband was protesting at a metro Detroit clinic at the time, when a clinic employee told him, “Why are you here? Your pope said you don’t need to be here.”
“I think the media did take advantage of his statements in order to make it look like those things don’t matter,” said Miller. “The enemies of the church have used statements of Pope Francis against the very teachings of the church.”
A leader that can grow
Ellen Knuth, 30, of Clinton Township likes how Pope Francis shakes things up.
Even lapsed and cynical Catholics find “this pope is legit,” said Knuth. They like his outreach to the poor, his recent call that each European parish take in a Syrian refugee family, and emphasis on the environment, she said. During Francis’ papacy, the Vatican has stepped up social media use and papal-approved @Pontifex tweets are dispatched in multiple languages.
“We’ve been raised in a world tied into fear and propaganda. We’re just tired of people telling us you should be scared… and this world is dangerous,” said Knuth. “Pope Francis says the most important things are loving each other, taking care of the poor and working on your compassion toward others,.”
Knuth works with other millennials at the Birmingham office of Panrimo, which offers study abroad programs. She was raised simultaneously Catholic and Lutheran and is looking for a spiritual home.
Her mother, churchgoing Catholic Jane Knuth, likes that her daughter likes Francis, and how that may encourage Ellen to find her place in the Catholic Church. The two of them co-authored a book, “Love Will Steer Me True” (Loyola Press, $13.95), about their faith and years apart when Ellen taught English in Japan.
Francis “hasn’t bought into the papal scenery and luxury,” said Ellen Knuth. “He talks about needing to go on a diet. That’s super relatable. I have a lot more trust and respect with a leader that can also grow, than a leader who comes in one way and stays that way the whole time.
Americans ” are really going to like this guy,” said David Briggs, a former Associated Press national reporter and an editor of the Association of Religion Data Archives. Briggs went on dozens of trips during the 27-year papacy of Pope John Paul II, who was engaging and popular for his part in the fall of communism in eastern Europe. But John Paul II, now a Catholic saint, embodied “an old model of the church,” said Briggs.
Pope Francis’ outreach resonates across the lines of faith.
“His messages of inclusiveness and social justice, all popes have had that message, but he’s amplified them,” said Raman Singh, a Plymouth small business owner who is Sikh and is president of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. “As a non-Catholic, the pope was in my periphery before, but I’m actually a little fascinated by this pope.
“He makes statements that speak to all of us. I feel we can work with him even if we’re not Catholic. That’s a big thing,” she said. “My mom’s 72 and she loves this pope — ‘Did you hear what the pope said?’ she’ll say. He speaks to everyone of all ages. It’s very exciting. I hope he continues to surprise us.”
“I think Pope Francis is like a gift when it comes to addressing our issues as Muslims and Catholics,” said Victor Ghaleb Begg, senior adviser to the Michigan Muslim Community Council. “With the world in turmoil, we need a leader like that, and I believe there’s a lot of love for the pope in the Muslim community.”
Begg said he hopes that when the pope speaks in the U.S. — be it before the United Nations in New York City, the historic first-time address to the U.S. Congress or in homilies at public masses — he calls for understanding.
“We would like for him to speak out against Islamophobia,” said Begg. “That will be very helpful in this election season for him to speak out against those who call us names and refer to Islam as radical.”
Don’t expect Francis to waste words during his U.S. visit, said Sister Sharon Holland, a onetime Vatican-based church lawyer and a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation in Monroe. The pope is keenly aware of his impact on Catholics and the world scene. She expects him to tailor his message to his various audiences, said Holland, “but I don’t think he’ll contradict himself in any way.”
His message, said Holland, will be rooted in the gospels “to be a moral force in the world.”