NEW YORK — There is something very special about the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church traveling abroad. Especially when the white-clad holy figure comes to visit the United States, the country of evil. At least, that's how America is seen in the eyes of very conservative Catholics and growing numbers of the non-American left. And that's what the pope himself calls capitalism — dung of the devil!
This contrast of opposite notions become material when "the Good" Pope Francis steps on American soil and is greeted by President Barack Obama, the representative of "evil." The American writer Timothy Egan also draws this dichotomy between Pope Francis and Donald Trump, the quintessential American evil, in his piece, The Anti-Trump Cometh. "In a few weeks, Pope Francis will visit our fair land, a fitting pivot from the Summer of Trump, closing out a gluttonous episode of narcissism, rudeness, frivolity and xenophobia," Egan writes. "For all that the orangutan-haired vulgarian has done to elevate the worst human traits a public figure can have, Francis is the anti-Trump. He has more power, media magnetism and authenticity in his lone functioning lung than Donald Trump has in his entire empire of ego."
This is it. Trump's ego will fry in a pile of wood, because the pope's ratings are — according to Pew — three times higher than his.
Egan's writing is very entertaining, but it nevertheless blends with the efforts of other writers to ascribe to Francis qualities, political goals or ambitions that he doesn't have. I myself got caught up in this game when I tried to figure out the enigmatic, yet very popular pope's personality in a Yonder post a few months ago.
But then, over the last few months, the pope's popularity has grown even faster, penetrating almost all stratums of modern society. So after his visit to Latin America, Pope Francis now has the titles of environmentalist, revolutionary and protector of the poor. In the present world crisis of political leadership, entire countries — even their leaders — are projecting their hopes onto the pope, who, it seems, has yet to make a wrong move.
We saw something similar in 2009, when the newly elected Obama set hopes high for many nations of the world. Not as a messiah, not as spiritual leader like the pope, but as the singularly charismatic and smart leader who had all the qualities to lead the world into more stable times.
Back then, Europeans hoped that with Obama, the United States would miraculously become a land of peace and prosperity that would radiate light on the rest of the world. But what Europe and others forgot was that the U.S. is a superpower with its own needs, obligations and constraints.
As we know, America stagnated and European hopes went unanswered. Now we are about to watch the leader of the smallest country on the planet visiting the U.S. in the role of exorcist of deviant, shortsighted and extremely conservative American politics, which will otherwise push the country further towards the edge of disaster.
Obama and Francis at the Vatican in March 2014. Photo Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
It is true that the pope believes strongly in the existence of the devil, but he is not an exorcist. And my intention is not to ignore or deny his spiritual and pastoral role as the head of an enormous flock of Christians. But let's say it: Pope Francis is also a shrewd politician.
With his modest behavior and simple lifestyle, he sets an example we haven't seen since Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a nun of Albanian descent who devoted her entire life to helping the poor, sick and abandoned children in India. The pope's acts are a constant challenge to the established financial and economic order, and his gestures take us out of our own individual comfort zones. He's gained admiration for this, prompting attention and applause from the entire world.
His seemingly honest and humble approach has given him those "divisions" that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once sarcastically asked the Vatican about. Francis is now leader of the 99%, and moved to the forefront of the climate change movement. In the absence of other influential leaders, he stands at the head of the global social movement.
His popularity is different from the sort that John Paul II enjoyed. He, too, gathered huge crowds, but life was different back then, and the world was one big party, unaware of the looming crisis. And while John Paul II touched people's hearts, Francis is getting into people's minds with clear-cut political statements. In my mind, Francis is just about to start cashing in on his popularity.
The traces of a campaign for new evangelization could be found in his recent Latin American tour, and Tim Rogers mentions similarities to other world politicians in his Fusion dispatch. Reporting on the pope's use of different language for different audiences, Rogers writes, "The pope tailoring his message to different audiences isn't opportunistic. It's shrewd. As the leader of an institution that has been criticized as distant, rigid and stale, Pope Francis is showing that he knows his audience and can connect with them. And in doing so, he appears to be breathing new life and energy into the church in Latin America. And that's one of the main reasons he got the job."
It works. We no longer discuss sexual abuse of children by priests. What ever happened to that?
Francis is an adventurous freedom fighter in this outdated world where so many things neatly line up in certain camps. He doesn't recognize the East-West divide. "If anything, he may be a 'southerner,' in terms of those world categories," Massimo Franco wrote in the Globalist. "For sure, he is a man without any sympathy for borders and divisions."
Italian writer Franco is the author of several books, including Parallel Empires, one of the few books on the history of the Vatican-United States relationship. He claims that one of the key aims of Pope Francis is to spread religious freedom all over the Spanish-speaking Americas. And when it comes to Washington, let's not forget the importance of this pope in sealing the Cuba deal, and that it's on the White House to repay the favor. Politically speaking, Francis has no limits and sees no obstacles to obtaining his goals.
That much is obvious from the Holy See's reaction to the crises in Syria and Ukraine. The pope took an assertive stance to the former, and a much more cautious approach to the latter. But both approaches have the same goal — to avoid a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This means that he's trying to bring Vladimir Putin back to the negotiation table.
The Holy See's relations with Obama and President Putin are the consequences of the Vatian's shift in foreign policy priorities. These are things that will be discussed during the pope's visit to the White House and during his speech to Congress. But when he talks to the 78 million American Catholics, you may hear Pope Francis make some pretty liberal statements hinting at changes in Catholic Church.
Whenever Francis talks about issues such as homosexuality, marriage of priests, abortion and contraception, it's always a question of emphasis; it is a different use of language, but not a change of doctrine, as Franco said in a recent interview. To accept these kinds of changes, this popular pope will have to win over the hostile forces at home, in the Vatican.
Unfortunately, some time ago Pope Francis said, "I don't have much time left." The Argentine pontiff, born with the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is 78 years old. It's not clear whether he was thinking of his age or the fact that he might not control the Vatican for much longer.