The Pope In Washington: Where the Francis Effect Meets the Kennedy Effect

September 23, 2015

Vanity Fair, September 23, 2015

At the altar end of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington there’s a round emblem set into the marble floor, the size of the tip-off circle in a junior-high-school gym. It reads: “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy, at the Requiem Mass, November 25, 1963, before their removal to Arlington, where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.”

After his meeting with President Obama at the White House this morning Pope Francis will proceed to St. Matthew’s to address the U.S. Catholic bishops. The cathedral event is one of the few events of Francis’s United States visit that was closed to the media, and it was the one least burdened with symbolism. But the location—the site where one dark day the American story and the Catholic story converged once and for all—makes it, in a sense, the most symbolically rich event of the trip. Here’s why. Come December, Francis will have spent a thousand days as Pope (today is day 924); and his thousand days—vibrant, rich in surprises, consequential out of proportion to specific acts or policies—call to mind the “thousand days” of the Kennedy administration, a theme Kennedy introduced at his inaugural and his aide Arthur Schlesinger burnished into legend.

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

I went to St. Matthew’s yesterday for eight A.M. mass. As cathedrals go, it’s nothing special from the outside, a reddish stone and brick-wedged midblock on Rhode Island Avenue. Fifty people were inside, including the priest and the sound man. Twenty-three minutes later the mass was ended. As I poked around the church afterward I noted plenty of details that put the papal visit in mind. There’s a bust of a square-jawed John Paul II to mark his visit to the place in 1979 and a stone blessed by Benedict XVI to mark his visit to the capital in 2008. And off to the right is a chapel modeled on the one in Padua, in Italy, devoted to St. Anthony, a beloved thirteenth-century Franciscan friar. There’s a fresco of the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and an etched translation of Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun”—the hymn of praise to God and creation from which Pope Francis took the title of Laudato Si’, his recent encyclical letter on the environment.

Francis-friendly, feature-ready stuff—but as I left the cathedral it was the “thousand days” theme that stuck in the mind, something like the way for Schlesinger “the roll of the drums, when we walked over to St. Matthew’s Cathedral on the frosty Monday, will sound forever in my ears.”

Kennedy introduced the thousand-days theme as he stated his aims in his inaugural address in January 1961: “All this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, not even perhaps in our life on this planet. But let us begin.” A thousand days later, his remains rested at the head of the aisle in St. Matthew’s; a year and a half after that, Schlesinger brought out A Thousand Days, his chronicle of the Kennedy administration. A close aide to Kennedy, Schlesinger was first of all a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, and his summation of the Kennedy effect at the very end of a very long book was a rhetorical moon shot:

“He had had so little time. . . . Yet he had accomplished so much: the new hope for peace on earth, the elimination of nuclear testing in the atmosphere and the abolition of nuclear diplomacy, the new policies toward Latin America and the third world, the reordering of American defense, the emancipation of the American Negro, the revolution in national economic policy, the concern for poverty, the stimulus to the arts, the fight for reason against extremism and mythology.”

Francis, too, has accomplished much in little time: the demythologizing of the papacy, the apportioning of Vatican decision-making with a kitchen cabinet, the reform of the Curia, the opening of the Vatican Bank to scrutiny, and the disciplining of bishops who turned a blind eye to priestly sexual abuse; the end of the U.S. standoff with Cuba and the denunciation of economic models that prize inequality and threaten the earth; the recovery of Catholic love for poor people, the opening to gay people and divorced people, the dialogue with people who expressly reject religion, the embodiment of the Church’s future in the Americas and the global South, and the confident affirmation that the Catholic Church, for all its sins, has at many times in many places been a force for good.

Like the Kennedy effect, the Francis effect involves mood and spirit as well as achievement. It’s symbolic. “Lifting us beyond our capacities,” Schlesinger wrote, “he gave his country back to its best self, wiping away the world’s impression of an old nation of old men, weary, played out, fearful of ideas, change and the future; he taught mankind that the process of rediscovering America was not over.” Substitute “Church” for “country” and “Catholicism” for “America” and you have the Francis effect in a few words.

To liken Jorge Mario Bergoglio to John F. Kennedy leaves a lot out. It passes over the fact that John Paul II transfixed American Catholics with his charisma and capacity for action—and his chiseled profile—when he visited the United States in 1979. It scants the efforts of Benedict XVI, who set the groundwork for the curial and bank reforms Francis has carried out—and whose retirement demystified the papacy profoundly. And it passes over the fact that Francis’s pontificate is still in progress. Oddly, the televised imagery from Pope Francis’s arrival Tuesday at Joint Base Andrews—formerly Andrews Air Force Base—recalled the footage of the arrival of Kennedy’s body from Dallas in November 1963: the plane idling on the tarmac, the phalanx of black cars, the blow-by-blow commentary, the admirers watching the motorcade from grassy knolls. But this Pope is alive, and we can hope his pontificate has a ways to go.

Francis’s thousand days: that is the era the Catholic Church is in just now. To be a Catholic and to be in the capital while Francis is here is to know what it must have felt like when John F. Kennedy was in the White House—to feel that (as Schlesinger put it) “the energies he released, the standards he set, the purposes he inspired, the goals he established would guide the land he loved for years to come.”

Related: How Pope Francis Became the People’s Pontiff

This article was originally published in Vanity Fair.

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