Communion and controversy in America

Americans flocked to see the Pope in Philadelphia, where talk turned more to immigration and same sex marriage than religion

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Pope Francis acknowledges faithful as he parades on his way to celebrate Sunday Mass at Benjamin Franklin Parkway September 27, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pope Francis concludes his tour of the U.S. with events in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday.  Matt Rourke/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 27: Pope Francis acknowledges faithful as he parades on his way to celebrate Sunday Mass at Benjamin Franklin Parkway September 27, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pope Francis concludes his tour of the U.S. with events in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday.
Matt Rourke/Getty Images

The New World’s Way of Compostela was a street that stretched from the Liberty Bell to the museum steps that Rocky ran, with an altar built for an Argentine pontiff between. Named for Philadelphia’s previously most-revered patriarch—Benjamin Franklin the printer-patriot, not Balboa the boxer—it was joyous and jammed and surging with pilgrims.

“For me,” said a nun in blue, hustling toward the gates at Sunday sunrise, quoting Saint Catherine of Siena as she passed phalanxes of militiamen in body armour and camouflage, “our Pope is our sweet Christ on Earth. If he’s not the successor to Jesus, then I don’t care what he has to say. I wouldn’t be up at six in the morning just to hear some old man.”

There was irony in these windswept canyons. Decades before the Bill of Rights abjured the establishment of a national religion in this republic, the man for whom the Franklin Parkway would be named had his doubts about conspicuous displays of piety. “Faith has doubtless its use in the World,” he wrote to a friend in 1753. “But I wish it were more productive of good Works, than I have generally seen it: I mean real good Works, Works of Kindness, Charity, Mercy, and Publick Spirit; not Holiday-keeping, Sermon-Reading or Hearing; performing Church Ceremonies.”

But it was indeed Church ceremonies on a titanic scale that lured the faithful on a windy September Sunday to Franklin’s City of Brotherly (and today Fatherly) Love, 860,000 of them by one estimate. They patiently endured all the indignities of gatherings in the Age of Terror: a three- or four-hour shuffle to submit to a pat-down and a rifling of backpacks. A billboard advised everyone that, just by coming to Philadelphia to stand in the presence of Francis they were permitting their names and images to be seen for commercial purposes “throughout the universe in perpetuity for any purpose whatsoever,” a harbinger of junk mail in heaven.

“Half of these people follow the teachings of the Church,” shrugged a gay man from El Salvador who had come to lobby the prelate to overturn millennia of prejudice. “The other half don’t even know why they’re here.”

It had been the same in Washington and New York City: vast assemblages of pennant-waving penitents and pilgrims, holding up plaintive signs—“My brother has a paralyzed leg; he needs a healing blessing” was one placard on the National Mall. Millions jostled and strained for a glimpse of “the coolest Pope ever,” the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who now, by the grace of a senior (and still living) pontiff’s shock retirement and a puff of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel, had become their own beneficent, double-chinned, beaming, humble, loving, selfie-sharing Anti-Trump.

“No actors, no millionaires, no politicians, no Donald,” a woman named Bharati Pandya said outside the U.S. Capitol, straining to catch a glimpse of the open-sided Popemobile. “I like to see only gods. When I die, I will go with the Pope.”

Francis had avoided visiting the United States, as a tourist or as an ordained servant of God, for all of his 78 years. Then, last week in Congress, he implored this country’s lawmakers to “move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity . . . co-operating generously for the common good with courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care.’ ”

That hope proved hollow within minutes, when the Speaker of the House of Representatives abruptly abdicated, Benedict-like, casting his party down into the pit of competing ambitions while some of his most implacable jackdaws spoke of shutting the government down entirely. Even as Francis was addressing the lawgivers, they popped up and down like duelling jack-in-the-boxes, Democrats cheering a Papal admonition not to be fearful of foreigners; Republicans loudly hailing the Pope’s calls to defend “traditional” families and not abort the unborn.

In Philly, now, the unelected laity assembled for the pontiff’s final act on U.S. soil after a week of communion and controversy—an outdoor mass, spoken in Spanish, Latin, English and Vietnamese, offered to the archipelago of ethnic insularities that make up the Catholic quartile of the American population. Wrapped for warmth in their national flags and tribal regalia were the Mexicans, the Tanzanians, the Ecuadorians, the Dominicans, the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the Panamanians, the Poles, the Dallas Cowboys fans.

“This is our universal family,” said a woman named Sandra Kennon, a fourth-generation Irish-American from a small town in Missouri. “If you’re a true Catholic, there is no ‘them.’ ”

In the autumn of Pope Francis, demographers were painting a parti-coloured portrait of American Catholicism. It remains by far the country’s largest denomination, its ranks now nearly two-fifths Hispanic, with regular church attendance down to 24 per cent of parishioners from 41 per cent a generation ago, and with the dreadful sex-abuse scandal still simmering in lawsuits, diocesan bankruptcies, clerical disgrace and untold private pain. Forty per cent of U.S. priests are aged 65 or older, and 3,500 congregations do not have a full-time priest at all.

Amid these shifts, the Call still could be heard. The young nun in blue was Sister Auriesville of the Servants of the Lord, a self-described former “Air Force brat,” her religious name taken from the upstate New York settlement where missionary priests were martyred—in the Church’s view, anyway; Native Americans might think otherwise—by Mohawks in the 17th century. She was asked about this Pope’s eagerness to dive into earthly affairs, as he did in the encyclical Laudato Sí with its strident condemnations of rapacious capitalism and “the myth of progress” and its lament that “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Sister Auriesville said: “When the Holy Spirit guides the Pope and Christ works through him and his Church, then what he says is important. When he tells me what kind of toothpaste to use or what soda to drink, that’s not essential to me.

“But greed? That’s in the Commandments. Those words come from God, and being a Catholic means constantly trying to discern what God wants.”

Discerning what the Roman Catholics of America want in 2015 was perhaps an easier chore. Overwhelmingly, the English and Spanish-speaking men and women whom a Maclean’s reporter interviewed on the Ben Franklin Parkway called on Pope Francis to abolish all doctrinal prejudice against homosexuals, to make annulment and divorce easier to obtain, and to move toward sanctioning artificial methods of birth control.

“Change is coming—it has to come,” said José Jones, Jr. of San Antonio, Tex., a senior citizen in the vest and ball cap of the St. Luke Council of the Knights of Columbus. “Accept everybody for who they are. We have to take our blinders off and look around and see the beauty of people.”

“What brought you to this way of thinking?” Jones was asked.

“My son and daughter came out as gay,” he replied.

A 25-year-old student named Ernesto Gonzalez had come from El Salvador. His T-shirt read “LGBT Catholics—Pope Francis, will you welcome us home?”

“It is time for him to speak out and make a clear statement,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not saying that he can impose change by himself, but he should start the conversation. I don’t think that he alone can change the doctrine of the Church, but he can open hearts.

“The Pope needs to break the disconnect that the Church hierarchy has with the younger generation. They are not in touch with the 21st century. He needs to speak, because if he stays quiet he is supporting the status quo by his omission.”

“My grandparents don’t want any changes but I know it has to change,” a man named Richard Roa from Riverside, Calif., observed. “Look at the words of Jesus and how he accepted all men as brothers.”

“I know it’s not right in the Bible,” said Roa’s daughter Cynthia, age 14. “But I have gay friends and I’m not going to be rude and tell them they’re wrong.”

(This may or may not come to pass. As he flew back to Italy Sunday night, the Pope told reporters that no one should be punished for denying services to people whose morals or desires they reject, such as the Kentucky clerk who went to jail in August rather than issue marriage licences to gay couples. “It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right,” Francis said. “It is a human right.”)

Roa said that 99 per cent of his fellow communicants at St. Anthony’s Church in Riverside are Hispanic; “there’s one French guy,” he laughed. He estimated that 30 per cent of them are in the United States illegally, and this was the spectre that followed Pope Francis of the Holy See wherever he went in the United States—that a substantial fraction of the men and women who flocked to pray with him and for him had broken the very laws of Ben Franklin’s republic to get here.

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons,” preached Pope Francis in Washington. “Is this not what we want for our own children?”

Immigration, too, weighed heavily on the minds of the multitudes on the Franklin Parkway.

“I don’t know how in the world you’ll ever fix that,” a Missourian named Terri Wright said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for a fence.”

“I don’t have the answer, nobody does, except Trump-—build a wall,” shrugged José Jones, Jr. of San Antonio. “Trump would send them all back.”

“He will have to start with my grandparents,” said Roa of Riverside.

It was time for the call to prayer, for the Exultate, justi, in Domino. Above was the roar of rotor blades; below, there were tambourines.

“Look around you,” said Sister Auriesville. “The Christ is here!”