David Hoppe

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:: Pope Francisí American adventure

by David Hoppe

I watched Pope-TV for three hours Thursday night. The Pontiff had addressed a joint session of Congress that morning, a first — for both popes and American politicians.

Then I tried getting hooked on a Susan Hayward movie on TCM. Hayward had the dubious distinction of making it big in Hollywood at the very moment the once-prodigious studio system was circling the cultural drain, too crusty to keep up with its audience, and too paranoid to adapt.

So I went to bed and read Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice until I fell asleep.

I don’t think I dreamt about Pope Francis. But that’s not to say his whirlwind day, beginning in Washington, DC, and concluding with a hasty drive, the wrong way up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, wasn’t the stuff that dreams are made of.

Pope Francis’ Stateside reception appears to have been nothing short of rapturous. People — and not just Catholics — have turned out by the tens of thousands just to get a look at the guy. This is interesting.

It wasn’t that long ago Catholics were a suspect people in this country. Less than a century ago, in the 1920’s, there were street fights in South Bend between Catholic students and nativist Hoosiers who resented having a Catholic university in their midst. One of the Ks in the infamous Ku Klux Klan’s initials stood for “Katholic.”

In 1960, John F. Kennedy had to convince many Americans that, if elected president, he wouldn’t put the Pope’s instructions ahead of the national interest.

And while we seem to have put those prejudices to rest, there’s still plenty of baggage associated with the Catholic Church. Ask any lapsed or recovering Catholic — they’re everywhere.

Papa Francesco, as he’s known in Italy, is, of course, a wonderfully disarming man. His humility, washing the feet of poor people, embracing children, imploring even nonbelievers to please wish him well, appears unforced and sincere.

These are gestures. Enough, certainly, to claim our attention for a moment, but little more. What gives them resonance is what the Pope has written and said.

American media tends to strain everything through self-fulfilling screens. So we are coached to listen for what Pope Francis says about Climate Change, or Immigration, or the Right to Life.

These subjects do come up. The Pope, though, invariably places them in a larger context, one that some might call spiritual, and others cultural.

This makes Pope Francis more closely akin to the Dalai Lama than it does to a specific faith tradition. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic or, for that matter, a Tibetan Buddhist, to be affected by the profound simplicity these men express.

People hunger for this approach. As the Pope told Congress: “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”

These words, unadorned, yet deep, are open to interpretations by both left and right. They muddle habitual labels and distinctions, which is probably their point.

They certainly riled Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro, whose disgusted retort was encrusted with a familiar brand of topical rhetoric: “Pope Francis slams capitalism, death penalty, immigration law; no real mention of abortion, gay marriage,” ran the headline above his commentary. At one point, he compared the Pope to Chairman Mao.

It was as if the guy was a studio boss, at 20th Century Fox, say, in 1955, still trying to crank out melodramas with Susan Hayward — scared to death most folks would rather stay home and watch TV.