Can Pope Francis Really Get His Message Through in the U.S.?

September 22, 2015

Vanity Fair, September 22, 2015 

Pope Francis makes his own bed in the morning. So said his nephew in an interview in the Argentine press recently, and it’s the sort of detail—at once authentic and surprising—that captures the happy paradox of the man. Tagged as a “surprise” Pope when he was elected in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is as surprising as ever, but not because he’s a Jesuit or an Argentinian. The surprise is that he is authentic, a live person, and that he has managed to remain so in spite of “the pomp of the papacy, the crush of celebrity, and the expectations of the global Church,” as I heard from one Vatican insider after another while reporting in “Our Man in the Vatican,” the profile of Francis in October’s Vanity Fair: “‘He doesn’t “play” the Pope,’ says Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. ‘He is who he is.’”

It’s his authenticity that makes him a Pope of this moment and that makes his U.S. visit seem out of the ordinary. At this point, papal visits to the U.S. are almost as regular as the election cycle. Benedict XVI was here in 2008, and John Paul II came five times, spending nearly a month in all, following a precedent set when Paul VI celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium while in New York for a single day: October 4, 1965. So why all the hullabaloo this time? Because this time the Pope is Francis, and he comes radiant with authenticity—authenticity of a kind that hardly seems possible for a public figure in a globalized age and media culture.

This week, Francis won’t be making his own bed; surely his hosts the nuncios of Washington and New York and the archbishop of Philadelphia will see to it. And that is the challenge, even the conundrum, of this visit. At age 78, the affable and unaffected Pope comes for the first time to the world’s political and financial capitals, where power is the bitcoin of the realm and little is left to chance. The Pope, who thrives on spontaneity, comes with a schedule as tightly choreographed as any in his pontificate: more than 20 events in five days, including those at the White House, Congress, the United Nations, and Ground Zero. And the people’s Pontiff will be greeted by an accredited press corps of 8,000 and security forces said to be as formidable as any put in place since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—on New York and Washington—14 years ago.

How, in such a setting, could anybody let his authentic self show? If anybody can, it is Francis—but I think it’s fair to say that unless he can find a way to break through the cordons and act spontaneously, the visit will be a letdown.

The need is great. American public life is notably lacking in authenticity right now. The contenders for the Republican presidential nomination are a gaggle of calculating opportunists—so much so that Donald Trump has been made out to be a paragon of true grit. On the Democrats’ side, e-mail-gate has given Hillary Clinton a fresh opportunity to do what the Clintons do best: dissemble to the point where it seems even she doesn’t know what she thought and when she thought it. The candidate who has everything lacks the essential thing: authenticity; and her challengers have figured this out. Sure, he’s a socialist, but Bernie Sanders has been embraced by the public as a combination of a Brooklyn Jew and a Vermont hippie—as a man who thinks and acts for himself. Likewise, Joseph Biden. On Stephen Colbert’s new show, the vice president made a run for the White House credible in 20 minutes simply by talking about his personal life candidly and without a script.

Colbert is himself an exhibit of the situation, an authenticity meter in tailored suit and rimless glasses. The thrust of the new show is that, after seeing Colbert play a role for nine years on Comedy Central, now we get to see him as himself. He affirms his authenticity by presenting himself as a reformed phony, a former fake.

It’s revealing that the one aspect of Colbert’s presentation to remain unchanged is his Catholicism. When The Colbert Report first aired in 2005, remember, the Catholic Church was widely seen as one of the least credible institutions on the planet—an organization facing legal challenges on three continents for orchestrating campaigns of deceit and suppression about priestly sexual abuse. That Colbert was openly Catholic anyhow was a sign of his authenticity, a glimpse of the person behind the persona. Catholicism made him credible, and vice versa.

So it is now with Jorge Mario Bergoglio. “Is the Pope Catholic?” So goes the old piece of wit—a piece so stale that when Newsweek used it as a coverline last week, the cover looked like a Daily Show parody graphic. But that is the thrust of the harsh critique of Francis from the American right: that this liberal-accommodationist Jesuit, with his faux-naif persona, his offhand-seeming tolerance for people with “alternative lifestyles,” and his impolitic call for action on climate change, is something other than Catholic.

About this, the right couldn’t be much more wrong. The fact is that for most of the people who will get a glimpse of him this week, Pope Francis seems authentic because he seems authentically Catholic—seems “a true Christian,” as pious folk used to say. The ready smile, the impatience with stuffy protocol, the unfeigned regard for other people and the reluctance to judge them harshly, the natural affinity for the poor, the sense that we should take no thought for the morrow because today’s cares are sufficient for today—these are character traits that people were raised to expect, and still do expect, from a person of faith.

“I am authentic, and so are you.” That is the message Francis expresses through all those close encounters in St. Peter’s Square—the selfies, the hugs, the hearty embraces of sick and elderly people, the moments when he breaks through the stylized ritual of the papal audience to meet a few pilgrims face to face. Can he express it this week, with just about every minute scheduled and every move scrutinized by reporters and arms-bearing security guys? Surely he can. The question is how. Monday in Cuba, addressing a group of young people in Spanish, he showed his authenticity by setting aside the script to speak extemporaneously. (“I’m not sure if in Cuba they use this word, but in Argentina we say, ‘Don’t be wimpy. Open yourselves and dream.’”) Because his English is limited, he will speak mainly Spanish in the U.S.; if he goes off script in Washington, his remarks will await translation.

I figure that there may be a surprise Tuesday evening. Francis is due to arrive at Joint Base Andrews at four o’clock and to take part in a welcoming ceremony at the base. The rest of the evening is open. This is probably for reasons of protocol: Francis will receive a proper welcome from President Obama at the White House Wednesday morning, and it would be tactless for a scheduled event to precede the president’s. Possibly the night is open so that Francis can rest and pray before the demanding wall-to-wall events of the days to follow. In any case, there’s an opening for an unscripted encounter—say, maté tea with Argentinians who live and work in the city, or a spotlit drop-by at the Lincoln Memorial, or evening prayer with the Jesuit community in a darkened chapel.

Here’s hoping that Francis, known as the Pope who carries his own bag, comes bearing his knack for surprises.

This article was originally published in Vanity Fair.

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