Pope Francis continues to send seismic shock waves across the globe, and the rapturous reception he received from his historic six-day US visit gave us a glimpse as to why.
The pontiff, like Jesus, walked among the masses, kissing babies, visiting prisoners and the homeless, speaking out on climate change, poverty, immigrations, church sex abuse, religious liberty, the family and retweeting ‘Black Lives Matter,’ to name just a few of his pastoral highlights.
The Pope Effect brought throngs of Catholics and admirers out to see him wave from his Popemobile and to hear him celebrate mass. His effect not only brought Republican John Boehner of Ohio to tears, but it also brought Boehner to the realization he should step down as House Speaker.
However, for many religious conservatives, the Pontiff’s remarks and actions during his visit were viewed as heretical, desecrating century-old church doctrine, and diminishing his authority as the head of the church.
The Pontiff aptly stated in a 2013 interview ‘the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards’ should the Catholic Church, in this 21st century, resist modernity as his predecessor did.
I thought Francis was going to reform, if not reinvent, an out-of-step institution.
But at the end of his visit the Pope was selling sadly the same product – Catholic orthodoxy.
Francis warned reporters on his trip from Cuba to Washington, DC: ‘I may have given the impression of being a little more to the left, but it would not be a correct interpretation.’
Francis gave a well-deserved shout-out of praise to nuns – the backbone and housekeepers of the church. But the ecclesiastical doors are still shut to ordaining women priests.
Francis doesn’t view the ban as a gender bias. When asked why the Pope remarked: ‘That can’t be done… The Church is female… it’s the spouse of Jesus Christ.’
We all recall Pope Francis’s remarks when flying home after a weeklong visit to Brazil in 2013 when he was queried about the much talked about ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican.
‘If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them,’ Francis said.
It was the most LGBTI-affirming remark the world has ever heard from the Catholic Church.
But Francis’s words don’t match his actions.
The Meeting of Families in Philadelphia included only one workshop on LGBTI issues – a panel with a celibate gay Catholic and his mother.
And his point about LGBTI families and marriages got across loud and clear during his talk to Congress with his subtle jab at gay marriage: ‘I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.’
Francis’s trip to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem was important.
The structural racism in the Catholic Church has made it an unwelcoming place of worship. African American Catholics are one of the smallest demographic groups in the church. There are 3million black Catholics but only 250 are priests among 40,000 priests, and only 16 bishops among 434.
Francis visited the Our Lady Queen of Angels School because the church by the same name was forced to close in 2007 – against the resistance, pleadings and prayers of its parishioners. Today the parishioners congregate in the park across from the church to worship.
And in Francis’s effort to reach out to his Latin Americans with the canonization of Junipero Serra, he opened old wounds with Native Americans.
Serra, a Spanish missionary, left a horrific legacy trying to decimate California Native American culture. Letters to stop Serra’s canonization were written to both the Vatican and Francis. They fell on deaf ears.
Pope Francis is a complicated, if not confusing pontiff.
On the surface he displays a pastoral countenance to his papacy that seemingly extends to all. But we end up with the geopolitics of a soft church bureaucrat evangelizing to today’s shrinking American Catholic Church – an institution that is less churched, less married, less white, and less conservative.
And his welcoming demeanor is not enough, in my opinion, to bridge the diversity and divisions the American church faces.