Pope Francis arrives in Washington, DC today, and we locals are getting ready for a huge celebration. Public officials have warned us to avoid travel for the next few days. We’re expecting the roads and public transportation to be flooded with thousands of pilgrims making their way to see the head of the world’s largest Christian communion. It’s gonna be a beautiful mess – um, Mass!
Francis’ visit to the United States will be an enormous spectacle. I have no doubt that many will find it inspiring and uplifting. But what’s the ultimate impact? Could Francis’ time in the US make waves that go beyond traffic delays and photo ops?
Here are three reasons the Pope’s arrival could mark a tipping point for American culture:
- The Pope inspires us to move beyond the culture wars. If you’re like most Americans, you’re exhausted from the endless ideological battles that have consumed our country in recent decades. So often in these battles, Christianity has been used as a weapon to attack others and score political points. It’s no wonder that millions of Americans have given up on organized religion altogether. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being manipulated for political advantage.
And yet, most of us are still hungry for something that goes deeper than the numbing consumerism that we are constantly sold. We’re disgusted by the right-wing, imperial Christianity that justifies foreign wars and domestic discrimination, but we long for the heart of love that we once found in Jesus. We are hungry for the genuine gospel of peace, reconciliation, and justice.
The good news that Francis preaches cuts through the hypocrisy of American political discourse. Francis reminds us that, in Jesus, it is possible to work for the protection of all life – including the unborn threatened by abortion, the natural world threatened by climate change, and the poor who are being crushed by ever-widening income inequality and economic injustice. Pope Francis breaks down the Republican/Democrat binary, holding out a vision of the Reign of God that challenges all political ideologies.
- Francis is unifying the Christian community. Just as the gospel message dissolves the hostility of the political culture wars, it also has the power to overcome divisions within the church. For hundreds of years, the Christian world has been divided between different Christian denominations, each one claiming to be the one and only true church. The emergence of Pope Francis, with his broad-minded ecumenism rooted in an evangelical mission, encourages us to reevaluate the sectarianism of centuries past.
This doesn’t mean we all become the same. There are important reasons that I am not a Catholic, and that the Pope is not a Quaker. But our differences are relativized in the light of our shared experience of Jesus Christ in our lives. The barriers between us are broken down by a common recognition of the challenges that face us as a species, and the extraordinary measures that we must take together to avert ecological catastrophe and economic atrocity. Our shared calling as disciples of Jesus and heirs of the Reign of God is so much greater than the many ways that we are different from one another. What would it look like if we committed ourselves to working together in all those areas where we are already of one heart and mind?
- He builds bridges with skeptics. Pope Francis has shown himself to be a universal Christian leader, with relevance far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic fellowship. His compassion and demonstrated love for the marginalized speaks to the heart of the spiritual-but-not-religious, agnostics, and the countless other Americans who want something deeper, but cannot in good conscience accept the Christianity presented to them by mainstream Evangelicalism.
Most of these folks are probably never going to become Catholics, but that’s not the point. Francis is a major Christian leader who is showing himself to be a compassionate, principled human being. It’s sad to say, but for many Americans, that’s something new.
For an historically Protestant nation that is increasingly fed up with George Bush Evangelicalism, Pope Francis’ visit is an opportunity to present an alternative vision for what life with Jesus can look like. This pope is connecting with millions of Americans who don’t consider themselves Christians, but who find themselves resonating with the simple, radical faith of Jesus.
This is an exciting moment. I’m looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to my city and nation. I feel hopeful about the kind of positive change that his visit could bring about in the spiritual life of our country.