Is it good for the Pope to be a “star”? Reflections on the papal visit

As I see it, the key to Pope Bergoglio is that he is primarily “this-worldly” oriented—this is his bent, his priority.

I.

On the plane trip back to Rome from Philadelphia on American Airlines, Pope Francis was asked two questions about his trip. The first was from a lady with the wonderful name of Maria Ruiz Sagrarios de Apodaca. The trip had obviously been a huge national and international event. She wanted to know if the Pope felt “powerful” after such success. Mindful perhaps of his previous record of off-handed remarks that needed weeks of explanation, Francis answered: “I don’t know if I had success, no. But I am afraid of myself.” He knows that he is weak and power is fleeting.

A second lady, from French radio, Mathilde Imberty, asked: “Holy Father, you have become a star in the United States. Is it good for the Church if the Pope is a star?” The Pope, in response, merely reflected on the fact that he has seen stars on summer nights to fall. The only thing a pope should worry about is service: “The Pope must be, must be, the servant of the servants of God.”

Obviously, Pope Bergoglio came to the United States prepared. But still, no matter how well prepared, for a man who had never been to the States before, his tour was remarkable. No man has ever quite gotten his first view of the United States by visiting Washington, New York, and Philadelphia on successive days when each city was ready to greet him. In these cities, he had no whiff of places like Pocahontas, Iowa (where I was born), or Waco, Texas where Baylor is, or Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where my sister once lived, let alone Salt Lake City, or Yellowstone, or Mobile. He may visit again, though he has remarked that his pontificate would be brief. He did say, however, in response to a question about China that, as he was flying back over China from Korea, he did hope to visit the place. He also promised to visit Mexico and I do not know where else, probably Argentina.

During the Pope’s U.S. visit, a Canadian friend asked me if I was sorry I was still not in Washington, D.C., so that I could see the doings first hand. A friend who attended the Papal Mass at the Catholic University of America told me it took her four hours to get into the area, and then she had to wait another hour and half in the hot sun for it to begin. Then the ceremonies lasted two and a half hours. But she said that it was beautiful. Actually, at the time I was in Boise visiting my brother and family. Television was wall-to-wall Pope Francis. I confess I could hardly understand a word he said either when he spoke English or with an English translation. But I dutifully printed out the talks from the Vatican site or other sites.

I am not sure with what to compare the Pope’s passage here. Was it like the triumphal entry of a Roman Emperor after conquering half of the world? The Holy Father is clearly a “personality”. His smiles and gestures are winning by any standard. I have never been much a fan of the Fiat as the official Papal vehicle. Most think it is a sign of humility. It seems a bit ostentatious to me. But I do have a capitalist observation. If I were the owners of Fiat in Turin, I would quickly rename the little four-seater “Fiat Il Papa” or perhaps “The Papal Fiat” and promise to contribute half the sales to the poor. A “papal fiat” after all is a phrase of classical legal meaning, “let it be done.”  (The only potential drawback could be a later discovery of some major defect that required recalling the little scooters.)

II.

Just before the Holy Father left for Cuba, in the Paul VI Auditorium in the Vatican, the Argentine  educational network arranged an on-line conference interview of the Pope with five Cuban and five American students. L’Osservatore Romano (September 25, 2015) shows Francis seated before two wide screens with the students on-line before him. It is a friendly interchange. The Pope speaks of education as “human right”. He even talks of a “right to play.”

Pope Francis put great emphasis on “social friendships”, whatever they are. Where they fit into Aristotle’s classification of friendships of utility, pleasure, and the highest sort, I am not clear. Perhaps they are the sort of things Aristotle talked about when people from the same country meet in a foreign land. They greet each other as brothers, having things in common. “The friends with everyone, friends with no one” still holds, but the virtue of friendliness to everyone (amiability) is probably what he had in mind. The Pope used the phrase “social friendship” again in a talk to Cuban youth where it seems to mean what John Paul II meant by “solidarity”, where everyone puts aside differences and talks.

The Pope’s remarks to the students on environment contained these gems: 1) “The polar bear in Alaska has to go even further north. Why? Because the glaciers are starting to melt.” The implication here, I take it, is that human beings are causing this melting, not natural changes. So if you want to save the polar bear, refreeze the North Pole.

But the polar bear is a “big” problem. The young can deal with “small” problems. Like what? “We can always use biodegradable materials. You know that a non-biodegradable plastic bag stays there for millennia and this brings damage to the environment.” Whether plastic wraps and bags have been responsible for many good things like protecting us from germs, keeping things fresh, and so forth is not considered. Just why we cannot teach people to pick the plastic bags up instead of destroying the whole plastic industry and its jobs, I am not sure. Paper biodegradable bags are made of wood pulp which is made from trees that are found in forests, etc. The “waste of paper” the Pope finds “shocking”; he does not seem to know of reforestation. We have more trees in this country today than we evidently did before Columbus discovered  the place.

The Pope next talks of varying crops in agricultural lands to restore the soil. I recall my uncles on their farms in Iowa doing just this.  The culprit seems to be business farming. Then there is a “waste of electricity”. Next the Pope tells the students of a conversation with a man who is supposed to know about these things. He tells him that “the Islands of the Pacific Ocean, while they are independent states, within 20 years,” are evidently to disappear. If Julian Simon were still alive he would probably make a bet with the Pope on this assumption. Simon once bet Paul Ehrlich, who was at the time preaching massive starvation, that in several decades there would be more available supply of every mineral than when the bet was made. Ehrlich lost.

I mention all these things not because I think the Pope said too much about the environment in his trip, but because he didn’t. In fact, he finally seems to have realized the connection between environmentalism and the totalitarian views of those who want to control population. He knows that massive strides have been made through normal methods to clean the environment and reduce poverty. There is no real crisis that cannot be dealt with, unless perhaps we so empower governments that, through the power given to them, they exercise absolute control over every movement of the citizenry. His talk to Cuban youth on hope and jobs did not seem to recognize that in Cuba all jobs are in government control.

Most observers thought that the Pope did stress the family especially, religious freedom (not the administration’s “right to worship”) as a first right, individual initiative at lower levels, the responsibility and dignity of politicians when they are doing what they should be doing. The brief meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor was of great importance. Such  gestures speak louder than words.

III.

Recently, I wrote an essay for Catholic Pulse titled “On the Power of Forgiving Sins”. During the return flight, Maria Antonieta Collins of Univision asked the Pope about forgiveness. I was pleased to read his remarkable response:

If a person has done wrong, is conscious of what he has done and does not say sorry, I ask God to take him into account. I forgive him, but he does not receive that forgiveness; he is closed to forgiveness. We must forgive, because we were all forgiven. It is another thing to receive that forgiveness. If that priest is closed to forgiveness, he won’t receive it because he locked the door from the inside. And what remains is to pray for the Lord to open his door. To forgive you must be willing. But not everyone can receive or know how to receive it, or are just not willing to receive it. What I am saying is hard. And that is how you explain how there are people who finish their life hardened, badly, without receiving the tenderness of God.

That may be the best passage of this pontificate! Everything is forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice, but forgiveness necessarily follows on admission of guilt. Without it, nothing can be forgiven. This is what free will means.

This “refusal to be forgiven” is the status of much of the modern world, which also denies that there is anything to forgive. All is permitted. This refusal to accept the “tenderness of God” is what we ultimately call hell (see my essay “A Second Look at Hell”). This Pope seldom draws out the logic of this conclusion, but here it is quite clear. No one can be saved without repentance which comes from the inside. Social structures, good or bad, do not excuse personal sin.

One last comment from the Pope’s return to Rome journey deserves attention. We have been much concerned about whether the Synod might, in principle, approve divorce. It is a delicate question that brings the very essence of the Church into question. Jean Marie Guenois of Le Figaro asked the question. This was the Holy Father’s response:

This document, this motu proprio, facilitates the processes and the timing. But it is not divorce because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. The legal trial is to prove that what seemed to be a sacrament wasn’t a sacrament, for lack of freedom, for example, or for lack of maturity, or for mental illness. There are so many reasons that bring about an annulment, after a study, an investigation. That there was no sacrament….

Some people think, correctly, that a declaration of nullity is worse for any children than divorce. Nullity in effect delegitimizes them. But it is clear that the Pope does not accept the notion of a “Catholic divorce” however the streamline annulment process works itself out. Also there is the question of the status of natural marriage, not just sacramental marriage. Simply because a marriage is not a sacrament does not mean that it is not a valid marriage.

So were there no problems with Pope Bergoglio’s memorable visit to our land? He was in the White House, in Congress, at the United Nations, at many meetings of bishops, the poor, the important, the ordinary, the families, even prisoners and homeless. Robert Royal remarked in one of his reports that even after two and a half years of seeing Pope Francis, we still are not sure what he is about. I claim no inside track. How are we to understand this man from Argentina? Is he a crypto-Peronista? A Marxist? A liberal? A Jesuit schemer? A thoroughly confused man? A liberationist? A Socialist? Or is he just a pious man trying his best to keep up, to give good examples, to serve?

Pope Francis does not seem to like normal Catholics, clergy or laity; he opts for sinners and heretics. While here, he did not support in any vigorous manner the efforts of the pro-life movement. He does not seem to admire intellectuals in any shape or form. He has distanced himself from John Paul II and Benedict XVI in many ways, not just in style. Many of his appointments are strange and definitely “left” leaning, as they say. As to his job, he certainly seems to enjoy being pope. He has become a “star”, a world-class figure, to use Hegel’s terms. He thrives before an audience. He seems uncritical about so many things—large government, the United Nations, climate change, criticism of capitalism, and Islam.

IV.

As I see it, the key to Pope Bergoglio is that he is primarily “this-worldly” oriented—this is his bent, his priority. The curious notion of making ecology a kind of ethics is most instructive. His eschatology seems centered on this world’s ongoing processes. He spoke to the youth in Cuba about hope. As far as I could judge, there was nothing in this discourse that transcended life in this world, though he would probably be surprised if one took this as a denial of anything transcendent. One thinks of Josef Pieper’s reflections on hope. The whole point of hope as a supernatural virtue is that this world is not enough. The Pope is definitely a “second commandment” man, a love of neighbor first. He undoubtedly would not deny Christ’s “seek ye first” God’s things and all these things would be added to you. But the whole context of preparing for our ultimate end while doing these service things seems missing or at least not emphasized.

Yet, no doubt Christianity is also “second commandment” oriented. The sins that we do not acknowledge for forgiveness are usually those against one’s neighbor. Most of them are covered by the Ten Commandments. The notion of “You did it for the least of my brethren” is a powerful one, and also a practical one. It puts us in contact with real people, next door. Yet, the “second commandment” without the first has an eerie feeling about it. It ends up with an “Is this all there is?” emptiness about it.

Actually, I hold that most modern ideologies, about which Pope Francis frequently warns us, are, in the history of thought, secularized efforts to comply with the “second commandment”. Aid to the poor and weak is almost always the justification for modern absolutist states. Their secularized charity often is a programmatic way to make things better. What is missing is the “first commandment”. If we do not have our relations with God right, we probably won’t have them right with men, even though it looks like we are trying.

Now, I am the first to say, for instance, that the issues of “gay marriage” or contraception, are not primarily issues of revelation but reason. They should be argued at this level. So one can go before Congress, as the Pope did, and not mention the name of Christ; popes are supposed to know about the things that congressmen deal with. But, no doubt, every member of Congress and every representative at the United Nations knew that the man who stood before them in a white cassock had something to do with Christ. However you mix it, without this Christ-overtone, he is just a man from an Argentine immigrant family. In any case, it is not, as in many lands, against the laws to speak the name of Christ in our Congress. The Pope surely knew that.

But of course, in the Catholic tradition, speaking of God, as the Pope did, is also something of reason, both in the sense that we can know certain things about God by reflection and because, on knowing of Christ, we can say even more things about reason. Pope Bergoglio’s presence, as he sees it, is one of making present a way of life based on service and care. He sees these latter as personal initiatives to be found and activated in every human life. Whether his more grandiose suggestions on ecology, economics, or peace can work is a matter of judgment, if I might use that word. Francis did leave Philadelphia as a celebrity and a “star”. He is a man who could say both “that I am afraid of myself” and that “the Pope must be the servant of the servants of God.” Not all triumphal entries are made in a Fiat. But the one that was will, no doubt, become part of the lore in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.