Now that Pope Francis has returned to Rome after his unforgettable visit to the United States, I have taken time to reflect on what it was that made me uncomfortable about it. It was not Francis himself, who was nearly pitch-perfect throughout. Pope Francis has tried by words and deeds to move his church beyond the triumphalism and self-absorption that have marred its mission. His eloquence and humility during his days here quietly underscored this core intention. But the inept manner in which the American media framed his visit, and the pretentious way his American church hosts handled it, came close to ruining his US trip. Francis emerged unscathed, but it was a close call.
Francis has rightly been called “the people’s pope.” He is loved and esteemed by Protestants, Jews, people of other faiths, and even by atheists. And of course most Catholics are rightly proud of him. But TV commentators never tired of emphasizing his Catholicism, frequently pointing out how so many politicians, congressman, Supreme Court justices, and even their fellow pundits are Catholic. Francis has said time and again that his church does not have all the answers, and keeps insisting on the need for dialogue. He has visited a mosque, prayed at the Wall in Jerusalem, and sat around a table in Rome laughing and chatting with rabbis. But, except for his visit to the 9/11 site, the ecumenical and interfaith dimension of his ministry was largely overlooked in his US visit. Could not at least a few Jewish, Muslim, or Protestant representatives have been invited to participate in one of the welcoming delegations?
Francis hates ostentation. He refuses to wear the traditional papal tiara and is reported to have said immediately after his election, “The circus is over.” He reserves his most severe remarks not for unbelievers but for self-important clerics and careerist church bureaucrats. He could not have been pleased that during most of his time here he was surrounded by overbearing prelates, some of whom bitterly disagree with how he is leading the church, but who seemed eager to get on camera with him, their superior postures and crimson sashes starkly contrasting to his calm smile and simple white robe. Sometimes a frame can enhance a picture, but sometimes it can distort it.
To his credit, Francis visited Harlem. But other than the president and his family at the airport, where were the African-Americans who constitute such a vibrant part of Christianity in America? Might his American tour guides have scheduled a stop in a black church? Moreover, despite his being a Latin-American, and his moving plea for immigrants, Latinos were hardly visible among the official delegations. It seems that despite the fact that it is Latinos who are infusing new life into the church and now constitute 40 percent of Catholics in America, the old Irish clerocracy still calls the signals. Maybe someone thought that canonizing the controversial Junipero Serra was enough.
Finally, where were the women? Francis has said promising things about women; given the tireless and indispensable work they do for the church, was there no room to wedge at least one nun into the white male crowd of welcomers at Andrews Air Force Base? This pope has a highly developed grasp of the importance of symbolism, washing the feet of the homeless, saying mass on the island of Lampedusa, where the bodies of desperate refugees wash ashore. But despite the inspiring clarity of his gestures during his sojourn here, our inept media and his ham-handed American stage managers almost managed to blur the important message he so earnestly wants to convey. Francis likes to ask people he meets to pray for him. I hope they do, because if the kind of press clumsiness and clerical self-promotion that dogged him on this trip continues elsewhere, he will need it.
Harvey Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University.