The first pope to visit the United States was Paul VI in October 1965, just before the close of Vatican II. Pope John Paul II during his long reign visited seven times. And Benedict came in 2008. So there is already a tradition of popes getting to know our country.
The history of famous Europeans writing their first reflections on America after their visits here is also extensive, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, G. K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. The writings of many of these shrewd observers are quite brilliant.
Jacques Maritain, for example, came here with the typical European Catholic prejudices about America: that Americans are materialistic, that our system is based on pure self-interest and nothing else, and that we are supreme individualists with little sense of community. In his Reflections on America he analyzes with a philosopher’s shrewdness how and why these prejudices of his were shattered.
So the writers in Rome preparing the longer speeches and briefer remarks of Pope Francis for his appearances in the United States during his upcoming visit in September have a mound of past testimony from non-American points of view to work from.
They also have from such research institutes as Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate a good picture of the myriad institutions and national organizations built by American Catholics, especially during the last 200 years. Two hundred twenty-four colleges and universities, some 1,200 secondary schools, and almost 13,000 elementary schools. The Catholic Church in the United States has built the second largest hospital system in the world, with over 600 hospitals and approximately 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities around the nation.
Americans in Rome early discover that Vatican officials either do not know at all or pay little regard to this amazing panoply of institutions, built largely from the bottom up, through the efforts and funds of Catholic families and individuals themselves. Scores of thousands of missionaries from elsewhere have come (and keep coming) to help build the Catholic Church in America. In return, scores of thousands of American Catholic missionaries have labored (and some have died) in missionary service around the world.
The papal nuncio to the United States, a couple of decades ago, commented with amusement that America is heavily spiced, like a really good Italian sauce, with lots of energy and originality and turbulence to enliven any kind of pasta. Thus ours is not a bland national church, but peppery and alive.
Among my own favorite comments of a pope visiting the U.S. is that of John Paul II on the occasion of his visit to that great baseball stadium of the Baltimore Orioles, Camden Yards, in October 1995. There the pope reminded Americans of President Abraham Lincoln’s deeply troubling question at Gettysburg in 1863: whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure. The pope worried that “the Biblical wisdom which played so large a part in the founding of America” might “be excluded from public moral debate.” He further reminded us that “every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we would like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
Further, the pope encouraged Catholic parents and his brother bishops to guard the truth, “especially in view of the challenges posed by a materialistic culture and by a permissive mentality that reduces freedom to license.” He pictured Christian life in the United States as a constant intergenerational battle in which both the liberty and the liveliness of conscience are in danger of perishing.
Above all, St. John Paul the Great worried that “Americans would forget the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the founding of your country.” And he asked searchingly, “Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion?” Relativism, the pope knew, would totally undermine America’s founding ideas.
Pope Francis need not worry about criticizing Americans too severely. Any taxi driver in New York City will blame the country far more than the pope can imagine. Americans are constantly criticizing one another. We have schemes of perfection dancing in our heads, to which we want others to conform. That is what it means to be born within a Puritan heritage. Even our libertines chastise one another for not being libertine enough.
One thing I wish Pope Francis would not do, though, is repeat some of the sweeping rhetorical comments he has made until now. In the light of my own experience, some of these claims are simply not valid. For example, he has said more than once that the poor never get richer. But virtually all Americans come from families who began life poor, but under the challenges of a free and responsible society, ceased being poor after at most two generations. That is true of my own family. It is true of virtually every other family I know.
Our pope is already deeply beloved here in America. Not long ago I attended a meeting of devout Evangelical leaders. A generation back, virtually all the members of such a group would have described themselves as ardent anti-papists, and it would have been rare to hear any speak of a pope with respect. But at this conference, several were describing Francis as the best model of Jesus Christ anywhere on earth today.
On a quite different point of the cultural spectrum, many of the most anti-religious, even anti-Catholic, feminists and secularists seem unable to get enough of Francis in the media – the articles, interviews, questions, praise…. All wondering, what next.
Welcome to America, Pope Francis! We’re eager to hear what you have to say.