When the archbishop of Buenos Aires – Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio left for the conclave in March 2013, he never thought that he would have been the one to be elected as Pope Francis. As archbishop of Buenos Aries he frequently rode the trains and buses and was regularly with the poor and homeless in the slums; often filling in for priests on vacation, not travelling frequently outside of the diocese and that was probably why he was little known and an unlikely successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
Immediately upon his election he started to radicalize the papacy; contrary to tradition, with some unusual practices like taking the bus back to his hotel to pay his bills; preferring a simpler residence than the traditional papal residence because, as he said, that enabled him to be more in touch with people.
The scandals that rocked the Catholic Church from top to bottom right across the universe are well established and known by those who want to know. Banking corruption and related ills like violence and drug-trafficking; sexual and physical abuse by priests, nuns and teachers in Catholic schools; mafia connections and related ills similar to banking scandals are some of the internal issues. It is against this background that the first visit by Pope Francis to the United States must be viewed.
The world’s media have been relentless in bringing these issues to the table. Pope Francis’ two immediate predecessors faced harsh criticisms for not doing enough to address the various scandals. Additionally, some of their statements to or about the American people have not rested well with America. For example, Pope John-Paul II once told America that they are generous but not charitable. Pope Benedict often challenged radicalism amongst catholic women’s groups including nuns. Everyone was looking forward to how Pope Francis would present himself and how he would be received.
By the time Pope Francis landed in the US he had already so won the hearts of the American people, that he was branded “the people’s Pope”. Over the week the 78-year-old pope kept up a frenetic pace. While in Washington, D.C., he visited the White House and addressed staff, he addressed a joint session of Congress, delivered a Homily to American Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, yet another to a large crowd including priests and nuns at the Basilica of the National Shrine and Catholic University.
In New York, he met privately with Secretary General – Ban Ki-Moon, followed by an address to UN staff and then to the General Assembly of the United Nations. He attended and led an inter-Faith ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. He presided over religious services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and celebrated outdoor Mass for thousands at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
Moving on to Philadelphia, Pope Francis addressed a gathering at Independence Hall, attended a very impressive and significant Family concert, visited the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary where he stayed while in Philadelphia, met with five victims of sexual abuse, and he celebrated a Mass for about 1,600 people at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and Paul. He said in his homily that the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. requires a much more active role for lay Catholics, especially women. All through, he waved to tens of thousands of people who assembled along his path and who sought his blessings during a papal procession.
Pope Francis, in his first trip to the United States, was also there as a visitor, and this was very evident when he was shown around buildings and places. The Pope spoke out boldly about the need for change in the way the environment is treated, immigrants and the poorest among us. He expanded on what have been the central themes of his papacy, calling on Americans to reach out to people who are impoverished and living on the edges of a wealthy society, including immigrants denied the benefits of citizenship. He asked world leaders to take action to heal an environment, hinting that when they mistreat the environment they mistreat humanity.
Some critics felt the Pope fell short in relation to his statements on priests’ sex abuse, even after he met with five abused victims on Sunday to make a personal apology to them. Francis followed that meeting by making perhaps his strongest public statement yet on the matter to a crowd of Catholic bishops and seminarians. “I am profoundly sorry. God weeps,” he said at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside of Philadelphia. “The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.”
During his speeches Pope Francis frequently commended America for allowing migrants to fulfill their dreams while advising them to work to build the country and not be ashamed of their culture. With messages that resonated beyond those of his faith, he seemed well aware that the future of Roman Catholicism may depend less on bringing people to church than on bringing the church to the people.
The Pope subtly and astutely addressed most of the controversial issues within the United States. His strong emphasis on the traditional family is obviously a rejection of the same-gender relation that the US has embraced. His message of mercy is reflected in the fact that an openly professed gay was allowed to officiate at one of the services. He called for religious tolerance and he frequently used the word ‘dialogue’ as a means to confronting challenges. He openly declared his opposition to the death penalty, stating that all life is precious and must be respected.
There were no large public protests as were anticipated in support of the gay and lesbian community, from women radicalism or from victims of sexual abuse. On the contrary, many non-Catholics, non-practicing and lapse Catholics accepted the Pope, but more so his message as he would prefer. Vice President Joe Biden was with him up to his departure for Rome at about 7.30 p.m. on Sunday; and as soon as he got home he again tweeted thanks to America.