As Pope Francis prepares to come to the United States, there is much anticipation about what America will learn from the Holy Father during his visit. An equally interesting question is what Pope Francis might learn from the United States. The experience of St. John Paul II teaches that what a pope might learn in the U.S. could be decisive.
There are not a few observers who suspect that Francis does not much like the United States, contrary to his own professed enthusiasm for the visit. His preference for the peripheries, rather than the center, is thought to mean that the world’s lone superpower is not the apple of his eye. His frequent condemnations of financial markets would likely jaundice his view of the home of Wall Street. His oft-repeated statement that he would have preferred to enter the United States from Mexico — in the end, he opted for Cuba instead — was somewhat odd, as if the United States was best seen in relation to the south. It would be difficult to imagine the Pope saying that he would prefer to enter Britain from Ireland or Germany from Poland.
Yet the most compelling “evidence” that Pope Francis has a problem with the U.S. is that he has never once visited it. Jorge Bergoglio was in the elite leadership class of Argentina since the early 1970s, when he was provincial of the Jesuits. The most influential strata of Argentinian society frequently comes to America as a matter of course; Bergoglio would have likely received several invitations per year for decades. His decision, then, to never set foot in the United States could suggest a desire to keep a literal distance from the country.
By way of contrast, Karol Wojtyla, despite living in communist Poland, visited the United States multiple times before his election as pope. Yet it was his visits as pope that made the most impact upon him, especially his 1993 visit to Denver for World Youth Day (WYD).
St. John Paul made two extensive papal visits before Denver, the first in 1979 and the second in 1987. He visited all parts of the country, not just the Washington-New York corridor of power, as Benedict XVI and now Francis have chosen to do. He clearly admired America’s heritage of liberty and was grateful for its role opposing tyranny, first in World War II and subsequently in the Cold War.
Yet John Paul was also deeply worried about the cultural decadence of the West in general and America in particular. Could a country mighty in arms and wealth make a place for God? Or did a culture of materialism and consumerism mean that America had little to offer what would be called the New Evangelization?
Familiar with heroic resistance behind the Iron Curtain, and encountering a culture apparently given over to hedonistic recreation on the other side of it, John Paul long thought that the spiritual renewal of the West depended upon the spiritual resources of the suffering Church in the East.
John Paul liked to speak of the Church “breathing with both lungs,” East and West. It was not only a reference to ecumenism — that the Church needed to breathe in both Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic together. It was a reference to the breath — the spirit — of the East, the spirit of mystery and meditation necessary to counter the material mastery of the West.
After the peaceful defeat of communism by the moral and spiritual revolution of 1989, John Paul’s World Youth Day itinerary would take him next to the Polish Marian Shrine of Czestochowa in 1991.
In the message for the VII World Youth Day, written less than a year after the Berlin Wall came down, John Paul wrote to the “young people of the countries of Eastern Europe” with “special encouragement.” He desired that they would bring their “immensely meaningful witness of faith” to an “encounter between the youth of the Churches of East and West.”
While rejoicing in the “exterior freedom” that was spreading in Eastern Europe, John Paul wrote that “exterior freedom alone is not enough. … It must be rooted always in the interior freedom that belongs to the children of God, who are guided by an upright moral conscience, capable of choosing what is truly good.”
Could the youth of the East share that interior freedom with the youth of the West, who, perhaps, had grown spoiled by an abundance of exterior freedom? An ecclesial Latin joke at the time put it this way: lux ex Oriente, luxus ex Occidente — light from the East, luxury from the West.
Then came Denver, the next stop on the WYD pilgrimage. Instead of gathering in an ancient shrine in the heart of Catholic Europe, John Paul met the youth of the world in a modern, secular city in the former frontier of the American West. What happened in Denver was a surprise to the American bishops and to the world’s gathered media. The vibrancy of the young Catholics there changed the way John Paul thought about the vitality of the American Church. Perhaps there were resources of renewal and evangelical energy to be harnessed there after all. The West was not lost.
Two months after Denver’s WYD, the Pope greeted Francis Stafford, then archbishop of Denver, saying, “Ah! Denver, una revoluzione (a revolution)!” Vatican officials explained that John Paul saw in Denver the possibilities of the New Evangelization made manifest.
“Before World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Pope John Paul had expected that the spiritual revolution within the Church would be initiated by the young people of the Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe,” Archbishop Stafford said. “After Denver, he expected the anticipated spiritual ‘revolution’ to be emanating also from young Catholics of the West, especially the Americas: lux ex Oriente et etiam ex Occidente — light from the East as well as from the West.’”
Is it possible that Pope Francis might discern a luz del Norte during his American pilgrimage? A light from the North?
For Latin Americans, the specter of America, el Norte, has haunted its recent history. The political, economic and cultural influence from the North is immense. Many Latin-American leaders have put resistance to America at the top of their agenda, the Castro brothers above all, whom the Holy Father has chosen for the introduction to his trip. For Latin-American Churchmen, America has often been the source of Protestant evangelism — or sheep-stealing, depending on the observer.
Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was distinctive, in that he did not blame the Church’s troubles in Latin America on el Norte. Yet the idea that the American Church, with its vast education, pro-life and social-service networks, might be a powerful model for evangelization does not figure prominently in papal rhetoric either.
The Holy Father will visit Catholic Charities in Washington, a Harlem Catholic school while in New York, and he will be hosted by Archbishop Charles Chaput, who in Denver and Philadelphia has led the most ambitious attempt anywhere to re-orient the Church toward the missionary discipleship at the heart of Pope Francis’ charter, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
After all that, will Pope Francis speak of America 2015 as “una rivoluzione” on the plane back to Rome? That depends on what he sees. From a distance he has already seen much darkness in America. Will he be able, upon arrival, to glimpse a ray of the luz del Norte?
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998 to 2003.