When I heard that Pope Francis was coming to America, my mind immediately flew back 50 years to the visit of Pope Paul VI. All Catholic school students in New York, of whom I was one, were required to form an honor guard, lining the pope’s route from JFK airport to Manhattan. I remember being cold and uncomfortable. There was nothing very exciting about Paul VI — we all wanted Pope John back. It’s often occurred to me that Paul VI and Lyndon Johnson had parallel fates. Paul VI implemented much of the work of the Vatican Council that had been initiated by Pope John, and was a pioneer in interfaith cooperation, just as Lyndon Johnson strengthened the social net and staked his political life on voting rights. Both had Waterloos: Johnson’s was Vietnam, Paul VI’s birth control. Neither was telegenic.
In 1965, the Catholic church was pretty much a nonplayer in the public imagination, certainly hundreds of notches below the Beatles. Many intellectuals considered that religion was on the way out, an irrelevance that would soon be outgrown. Maybe Billy Graham had some political clout, but since Kennedy had insisted that the fear of the church’s heavy involvement in political life was only a fantasy, the church seemed to play along.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the world has changed dramatically in 50 years, and no surprise that this would be reflected in what the figure of the pope might mean. One of the greatest changes has been the rise of fundamentalism, which makes religion a live topic once again. Equally important is the changing role of media, public and private, with an expanded range and definition of the concept of celebrity. If you had said in 1965 that the pope tweets, people would think he was doing bird calls.
One of Francis’s predecessors, John Paul II, certainly knew, like Ronald Regan, how to use the media to enhance his image. But the image he was interested in was that of the fearless warrior: Shape up, this is the new lean-and-mean church. Athletic, masculine, with a tight-lipped, sharky smile. He may have been history’s handsomest pope. He was popular, although the left wing of the church grieved his chilling effect on freedom of thought. He was followed by Benedict XVI, who had the blank eyes of a seagull, and whom almost no one liked. Known as God’s rottweiler, he wanted the church even leaner and much, much meaner. Neither John Paul nor Benedict successfully engaged the great scandal of pedophilia, which spread its poison over both their reigns.
Along then comes Francis. A great smile. He drives a Ford and lives in a simple apartment. He washes the feet of the poor. And then, early in his reign, he says in an interview that the church needs to stop harping excessively on homosexuality and abortion. On a plane, speaking of homosexuals, he says, “Who am I to judge?”
Next thing you know, he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone. (If Paul VI had made the cover of Rolling Stone, it would have been a parody.) Everyone loves him and he seems to love everyone. Immediately, the tone is changed. Catholicism is no longer an automatic synonym for censorship and sexual phobia.
This change in tone is Francis’s greatest achievement, and it’s huge. But it would be a mistake, and one that could result later in a rancorous disappointment, to make of Francis something he’s not. He’s not a feminist — on women’s issues he gets a gentleman’s C. He’s not even much of a reformer: Don’t expect any big legal changes about birth control or other sexual issues. He is, however, an astute politician. He is determined to clean out the dry rot of Vatican entrenched bureaucracy, including the mess of its finances.
The most important thing about him is that he is a man of compassion. He wants people to understand that God is a God of love and not judgment, and that it is the church’s role to make that God accessible to people.
I’m sure the kids who will be making up his honor guard will be much more excited than we were. As they should be.
Mary Gordon’s latest book is “The Liar’s Wife,” a collection of novellas.