Popes in the City

Perhaps you’ve heard that next month Pope Francis is coming to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia after he visits Cuba. (What message might the Argentinian pope be sending by first dropping in on those Jesuit-educated Castros? Best not to think about it.) The impending arrival of the papal caravan has excited a good many Catholics (and many others) while increasing the anxiety of those self-anointed “orthodox Catholics” who fear that the Jesuit pope has a leftish agenda up the sleeve of his cassock. For their part, Francis enthusiasts are waxing enthusiastic. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who to his credit often has sage things to say when it comes to the liberal-conservative divide in the church, began a many-part series titled “Pope Francis is Coming!” Golly, yes he is, but do we really need the exclamation point? (Winters and I have differed in the past on just how papal-centric Catholics ought to be.) [“Contra Baumann", NCR].)   

Francis’s New York City stop will in fact take place almost fifty years to the day after Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit the United States, flew in for a tumultuous fourteen-hour stay in October of 1965. Like Paul, Francis will address the U.N. and plead for peace. On that score, the papal agenda, however futile, rarely changes. It is unlikely, however, that Francis will warn the U.N. delegates that resorting to birth control is “irrational,” as Paul did, much to the audience’s surprise and befuddlement. One suspects that the “irrational” denial of climate change will be a principal theme, along with the depredations of modern capitalism. Francis’s predecessors were also critics of economic inequality. How could they not be with the way the Gospel disconcerts us all by pointing an accusatory finger at those who neglect the poor? Despite the strenuous if well-rewarded efforts of some neoconservative intellectuals, the eye of a needle hasn’t gotten any larger. Francis’s regard for the poor, much to the discomfort of such folks, does seem to be of a somewhat different intensity than most of those who preceded him in the chair of Peter. 

Francis’s visit is a big deal, but I doubt “the entire nation is focused” on it, as Winters imagines.

It is safe to say that Paul VI’s visit was an even bigger deal. According to news reports, 4 million people turned out to get a glimpse of Paul as his motorcade made its way from Queens to Harlem to the Waldorf Astoria, where he met with President Lyndon Johnson. Few suspected that 1965 would be the high-water mark of institutional Catholicism’s power and authority in America, soon to be eroded by the irresistible pressures of assimilation (welcome to the suburbs!) and the novel uncertainties that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms and Humanae vitae. Indeed, writing in Commonweal, associate editor John Leo noted that the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium “gave many Catholics in the New York area their first look at the modernized liturgy.” If only Leo (who evolved into very much a conservative pundit at U.S. News & World Report) had known of all the insipid and banal homilies and hymnody about to be unleashed.

Leo’s article is an acutely observed piece, both witty and quite measured regarding all the “hoopla” and “euphoria” surrounding the papal visit. “If the cheering was unanimous,” Leo wrote, “it was not clear as to exactly what was being cheered.” That sort of gentle skepticism seems like the right mix of respectful attention and journalistic wariness. Leo is especially wry about the three television networks’ fifteen hours of uninterrupted coverage, a precursor of sorts to today’s monomaniacal cable news channels. Even what the pope ate for breakfast that morning in Rome—a sweet roll and coffee—was breathlessly reported. Not surprisingly, Bishop Fulton Sheen served as an official Catholic commentator, in this instance for CBS. (Did he wear his cape?) The pope was flying on TWA, Sheen assured his audience, because the initials stood for “Travelling With the Angels.” What, Sheen was asked, did he make of the points made in the pope’s U.N. speech? “The Holy Father made seven points, like the seven notes of the octave.” This is treacle of rare purity and confidence. Is it any wonder that reruns of Sheen’s popular “Life is Worth Living” TV program were long a staple on EWTN? For his part, Leo concluded his assessment of the television coverage by speculating that “while the pope may be invited back, Bishop Sheen will not be.”

Leo hoped the evident enthusiasm of the crowds might “reduce the chances of conservatives’ being less papal than the pope on liturgical changes and internationalism.” Fat chance. He also worried that the attention paid the pope might overshadow the work of the ecumenical council then in its final sessions in Rome. “For many, that will be precisely the problem,” Leo wrote. 

It remains precisely the problem today, although to his great credit this pope clearly wants to discourage any veneration of the papacy. Given the nature of the institution, that will not be much easier than threading the eye of a needle. In the unremitting light of today’s even more insatiable media, it is harder now than in 1965 for one man to see, let alone reach out to the “peripheries.” But Francis keeps trying, bless him.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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