Vatican

White Clad Man And The White House

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Pope Francis greets crowd of Italian boy and girl scouts

There is something very special about the pope of the Roman Catholic Church traveling abroad. Especially when the white-clad holy figure comes to visit the United States, the country of evil. At least, that’s how America is seen in the eyes of very conservative Catholics and increasing numbers of the non-American left. And that is what the pope himself calls capitalism a dung of the devil!

This contrast of opposite notions will become material later this month when “the Good,” Pope Francis, will step on American soil and will be greeted by president Obama, the representative of “the Evil.” Timothy Egan also draws this dichotomy between Pope Francis and Donald Trump, the quintessential American Evil, in his piece, “The Anti-Trump Cometh”:

In few weeks, Pope Francis will visit our fair land, a fitting pivot from the Summer of Trump, closing out a gluttonous episode of narcissism, rudeness, frivolity and xenophobia. For all that the orangutan-haired vulgarian has done to elevate the worst human traits a public figure can have, Francis is the anti-Trump. He has more power, media magnetism and authenticity in his lone functioning lung than Donald Trump has in his entire empire of ego.

This is it. Trump’s ego will fry in a pile of wood, because Francis’s ratings are – according to Pew – three times higher than his.

Egan’s writing is very entertaining, but it nevertheless blends with the efforts of other writers to ascribe to Francis qualities, political goals or ambitions that he does not have. I myself got caught up in this game when I tried to figure out the enigmatic, yet very popular pope’s personality in Yonder’s post a few months ago.   

But then, over the last few months, the pope’s popularity has grown even faster, covering more and more territory, penetrating almost all stratums of modern society. So after his visit to Latin America, pope Francis now has the titles of environmentalist, revolutionary and protector of the poor. In the present world crisis of political leadership, entire countries even their leaders are projecting their hopes into the pope, who, it seems, has yet to make a wrong move. We saw something similar in 2009, when the newly elected Barack Obama set hopes high for many nations of the world. Not as a messiah, not as spiritual leader like the pope, but as charismatic and smart leader who had all the qualities to lead the world into more stable times. Back then, Europeans hoped that with Obama, the United States would miraculously become a land of peace and prosperity that would radiate light on the rest of the world. But what Europe and others forgot was that the U.S. is a superpower with its own needs, obligations and constraints.

As we know, America stagnated and European hopes did not come through. Today, only six years after 2009, we are about to observe the leader of the smallest country on the planet visiting the U.S. in the role of exorcist of deviant, shortsighted and extremely conservative American politics, which will otherwise push the country deeper into troubled waters and towards the edge of disaster.

It is true that the pope believes strongly in the existence of the devil, but he is not an exorcist. And my intention is not to ignore or deny his spiritual and pastoral role as the head of an enormous flock of Christians. But let’s say it: Pope Francis is also a shrewd politician.

With his modest behavior and simple lifestyle, he sets an example we haven’t seen since Madre Teresa of Calcutta, a nun of Albanian descent, who devoted her entire life helping the poor, sick and abandoned children in India. The pope’s acts are a constant challenge to the established financial and economic order, and his gestures are taking us out of our own individual comfort zones. He’s gained admiration for this he’s getting attention and applause from the entire world. His seemingly honest and populistic approach has given him those divisions that Joseph Stalin, the former Soviet Union dictator, once sarcastically asked the Vatican about. Francis is now leader of the 99% he has occupied the climate change movement. In the absence of other influential leaders, he is one and only who stands at the head of the global social movement.

Francis’s popularity is different from the sort that John Paul II enjoyed. He, too, gathered huge crowds, but back then, life was different, and the world was one big party, unaware of the looming crisis. And while John Paul II got into people’s hearts, Francis is getting into people’s minds with clear cut political statements. Benedict XVI could already do some of Francis’s work, but he was not a tall politician. Francis is, and in my mind, he is just about to start cashing in on his popularity.

You can find the traces of a campaign for new evangelization in his recent Latin American tour, while Francis’s similarities to other world politicians are mentioned in Tim Rogers’ Fusion dispatch. Reporting on the pope’s use of different language for different audiences, Rogers concludes:

The pope tailoring his message to different audiences isn’t opportunistic. It’s shrewd. As the leader of an institution that has been criticized as distant, rigid and stale, Pope Francis is showing that he knows his audience and can connect with them. And in doing so, he appears to be breathing new life and energy into the church in Latin America. And that’s one of the main reasons he got the job.

It works. We no longer discuss sexual abuse of children by priests. What ever happened to them?

There were only a few papal visits to the United States in the short history of American-Vatican relations. None of them was an official state visit, but almost all of them were done by John Paul II.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican were broken in 1867, after presumed Roman Catholic involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. They were reestablished after 117 years, on Jan. 10, 1984. The approach between two countries started not long after the election of Ronald Reagan. Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his native Poland in May 1979 was an incredible success that shook the foundation of the country’s communist regime. When, 20 months later, Reagan moved into the Oval Office, he did not lose time. He sent William Casey, the director of the CIA, to Pope John Paul II. Casey, a devoute Catholic himself, brought a very special gift to the pope: a satellite photo of Wojtyla – as he was called before he took on his papal name – surrounded by the crowd of one million that attended his speech in Warsaw. There were many other photos to be seen later, when Reagan’s administration pushed hard to move the long-established balance of the Cold War in favor of the West. Poland became the absolute priority of the White House’s foreign policy, with Reagan and Casey doing everything they could to enable Warsaw’s exit from the orbit of the Soviet Union. John Paul II was the person who inspired and protected Solidarnosc, the strong union movement for his homeland’s freedom.

“John Paul II, a Pole, was fundamentally an anti-communist warrior – and too firmly positioned in the ‘American camp.’Benedict XVI, the German pope, perceived that things were changing on that economically failed communist island, but he was overwhelmed by Vatican internal conflicts and forced to focus on them.

The global landscape has also shifted significantly. Multi-polarism is a matter of fact, no longer just an aspiration.

Francis is an adventurous destroyer of this outdated world where so many things neatly lined up in certain ‘camps.’ He doesn’t recognize the East-West divide.

If anything, he may be a ‘southerner,’ in terms of those world categories. For sure, he is a man without any sympathy for borders and divisions,” Massimo Franco wrote in the Globalist. The author of several books, including Parallel Empires, one of the few if not the only books on the history of the Vatican-United States relationship, Franco claims that one of the key aims of Pope Francis is to spread freedom of religion all over the Spanish-speaking Americas. And when it comes to Washington, let’s not forget the importance of this pope in breaking the Cuba deal, and that it is on the White House to repay this favor. Politically speaking, Francis has no limits and sees no obstacles to obtaining his goal.

That much is obvious from the Holy See’s reaction to the crises in Syria and the Ukraine. The pope took an assertive stance to the former, and much more cautious approach to the latter. The two different approaches by Pope Francis have the same goal – to avoid a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This means that he is trying to bring Vladimir Putin back to the negotiation table.

The Holy See’s relations with President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin are the consequences of this shift in the Vatican’s attention and priorities in its foreign policy. These are things that will be discussed during the Pope’s visit to the White House and during the his speech to Congress at the end of this month. But when he talks to the the 78 million American Catholics, you may hear Pope Francis making some pretty liberal statements hinting at changes in Catholic Church. It’s a question of emphasis when Francis talks about issues like homosexuality, marriage of priests, abortion and contraception. This kind of emphasis is a different use of language, but not a change of doctrine, as Massimo Franco said in a recent interview. To accept these kinds of changes, this popular pope will, like any other politician, have to win over the hostile forces at home, in the Vatican. But unfortunately, some time ago I heard Pope Francis saying, “I don’t have much time left.” Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis’ name before he became a pope) is 78 years old. It is not clear whether he was thinking of his age or the fact that he might not control the situation in Vatican for much longer.

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