October 2, 2015

Reflection / John F. Fink

Thoughts about the pope’s visit

John F. FinkWith all the acclaim Pope Francis received during his visit to the United States, can there be any doubt that he is the most popular person in the world? Except, of course, among the radical Muslims who are part of ISIS, and their ilk.

He spoke to the United Nations in New York at a time when most of the top leaders of the civilized world were meeting, but Pope Francis pulled the biggest audience. The television pictures showed Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany and the most powerful political figure in Europe, listening raptly to what the pope had to say.

At ground zero, there were religious leaders from all the major faith traditions. He greeted them all, and they all were glad to be meeting him as one meets a celebrity rather than as an equal.

Presidents could only wish they could get quite the reception that Pope Francis received during his unprecedented talk to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. I can’t remember when a president brought senators and representatives to tears, as the pope did Sen. Marco Rubio and Speaker of the House John Boehner, although Boehner is known to cry easily.

What other person in the world could get nearly a million people to attend a rally, or any other event, as Pope Francis did for a Mass in Philadelphia? What political figure could ever attract the crowds that the pope did all week? In my lifetime, perhaps John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert were the only ones.

I was in Washington for the canonization Mass for Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, so I can attest to the extraordinary measures that were put into effect for the pope’s security. Nothing like that has ever been done for any other visitor to our country, either a political or a religious figure.

Those who couldn’t be in Washington, New York or Philadelphia watched the pope on television in unprecedented numbers. CNN and EWTN covered everything the pope did live, but so did the local TV stations in those three cities.

And it wasn’t only Catholics who were watching. People of all faiths, or of no faith, are highly attracted to Pope Francis. They appreciate not only what he says, but the way he walks the talk, living simply and ministering to the poor, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned. They can see Jesus in this man who is leading the Catholic Church, but who obviously cares for all of humanity.

The media kept saying that the pope’s reception in the United States was unprecedented, but I’m not sure that’s true. We tend to forget that Pope John Paul II attracted pretty much the same thing the first time he visited the United States in 1979. He went to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Des Moines and Washington.

Many Catholics from this area went to Chicago to see him, and they can recall what that was like. I was among those invited to the White House for that visit, when he met with President Jimmy Carter. He was the first pope to visit the White House.

At that time, Time magazine called him “John Paul, Superstar” for the enormous crowds that he drew and the wild enthusiasm they showed for him. He was to visit the United States four other times, but this first visit and his visit to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day were probably the most tumultuous.

I say this, not to take away anything from Pope Francis’ visit, but to say that the world still pays attention to what the pope—any pope—has to say when it comes to moral values. Pope Francis is a very different man from Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, all of whom visited the United States and received joyous welcomes.

Now if only the world would put into practice the things that Pope Francis urged during his visit. In his speech to Congress, he made it very simple—the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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