In some ways, Francis is the pope Obama has waited for. And many Americans seem to feel the same way. Pope Francis has an 88 personal approval rating among American adults. He was named Person of the Year in 2013 not only by Time, but also by The Advocate, a major LGBT publication. Some claim we are beginning to see a “Francis effect,” a revitalization of Catholicism in the United States due to Francis’s popularity.
Yet for a leader who has had such an impact on so many Americans and served as the subject of so much speculation, Pope Francis has not spoken directly to the American situation. American politicians, journalists, and everyday Americans have been free to translate his words to an American context, often according to their own prejudices and preferences. When the pope speaks of poverty, is he making the case for a raise to the federal minimum wage or for increased foreign aid? When he speaks of religious freedom, is he speaking to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or to Iran? Is he speaking to both?
Finally, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to address Americans directly. Partisans are primed to take his words as a political endorsement. Liberal and conservative Catholics are holding their breath, hoping the pope will confirm their version of him. They are likely to be disappointed. This pope often finds a way to transcend these ideological differences, not by staying above them but by refusing to depersonalize the personal. This is at the heart of some of the pope’s most well-known statements. When he was asked about church bureaucracy, and what reforms he thought were necessary, he replied that “the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. He also said that “the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all” who take “responsibility of the person.” When asked about homosexuality, he reminded Catholics that they “must always consider the person.” While political observers will look for Pope Francis to affirm a political stance this Thursday, he is likely to use the opportunity to point toward faith, toward humility, toward Jesus.
The average American will be looking for meaning in this meeting in a different way. Their primary interest will not be in what the pope thinks about the latest political back-and-forth or even about the state of the Catholic Church in America. Many Americans feel rudderless. Their worldview is confused and incoherent as they try to reconcile high-minded ideals with the practical choices they face every day. In this era of division—a divided media and a divided politics—the number of leaders with the moral authority and willingness to help Americans answer the big questions is dwindling. Is our country becoming more good or less good? What should most concern us? What is worth fighting for? Hoping for? Where are we headed, and do we need a course correction?