Francis the Healer. Francis the Diplomat. Francis the Prophet.
These are the titles that Daniel Ramirez, LSA assistant professor of history and American culture and a specialist in Latin American religious culture, gives to Pope Francis, a figure of tremendous inspiration around the world—and not just for Catholics.
Francis is the first pope from South America, the first Jesuit pope, and the first to name himself after St. Francis. Eschewing the pope’s traditional palatial residence for a relatively humble, two-room apartment, Pope Francis has adopted a series of cultural attitudes toward issues that many in the Catholic Church had assumed would never change.
Before he was pope, then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio regularly presided at mass in the slums of Buenos Aires. He has carried that concern for the poor into his papacy, exhorting the faithful to care for those least able to care for themselves and criticizing global economic systems that reinforce inequality.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis released an encyclical—a letter from the pope to all the bishops of the Catholic Church—titled “Laudato Si,” which discussed in urgent terms the threat of global climate change.
Pope Francis has spoken on other controversial topics too. When asked about the status of homosexual priests in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis answered with a question of his own, asking, “Who am I to judge?” Such stances have cemented his reputation as a new breed of spiritual leader.
And now Francis brings his views and influence to America. On Thursday, September 24, he will become the first pope in history to address the United States Congress. LSA asked Professor Ramirez, the author of Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century, a few questions about what to expect from the pope’s speech to Congress and what the pope should—and shouldn’t—expect from his audience.
What should people be watching for during the pope’s speech? What do you expect the reaction to be?
Daniel Ramirez: It will be absolutely fascinating to see the body language in Congress. Folks are used to counting up and downs, the minutes of applause, and that sort of thing, waiting to see how many times the senators and representatives stand up, if they stand up at all, and how many times both Democrats and Republicans stand up together.
When the pope hits pro-life issues, how is he going to couch it, if at all? When he gets to global warming and economic inequality, who will he get a rise out of? Is [Congresswoman Nancy] Pelosi going to stand up? Is [House Speaker John] Boehner? [Both Pelosi and Boehner are Catholic.] That’s going to be fascinating to watch.
Many American Catholics have had a hard time with some of the things that Pope Francis has said. Some bishops and their allies have cultivated a particular agenda in terms of the family and society and economics, and those bishops are finding themselves quite discomfited by Pope Francis and by his encyclical, “Laudato Si.” That’s not the sort of thing that they were expecting from the successor to Benedict and John Paul II. So I think they’re going to be hanging on every word he utters.
I also think the pope’s arrival in Washington, D.C., is going to finally, finally be the chance for American Catholics to see Francis with their own eyes and to read him without the inevitable lens that gets put on when he is speaking in Latin America. This is the real deal.
What are you expecting from the speech itself?
DR: I would imagine that he will call for continued reconciliation between nations, especially between Cuba and the United States since he will visit Cuba right before he comes to the United States.
And in this year's encyclical, he makes a point about the comments he makes there not being the final word on the issue of climate change, and that dialogue is imperative between all positions. So I expect him to call leaders to dialogue from all points of view on the global-warming issue.
He might also say something about the family as the foundational unit of society. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage in America, everyone in the audience is going to be parsing every word, searching for his view on it. I don’t think he’ll reference it necessarily, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a pitch for policies that strengthen the family.
Can you talk about the religious culture that Pope Francis emerged from?
DR: Here the danger is to paint all of Latin America with a broad brush. Argentina in particular is trending in a more pluralistic direction. It’s one of the countries where Pentecostalism has taken deep root and grown. This is true in most of the southern cone—in Brazil and Chile, in particular—and untrue in, say, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, which are places Pope Francis just visited. So I think in that context he has learned to embrace pluralism in ways that his fellow bishops in Latin American countries may not have, or may not have had to. So there’s that context.
Once the definitive history of 20th-century Latin American Catholicism is written, it’s going to talk about two challenges. The first is the ideological one, with politics and Marxism. The other challenge is Pentecostalism. And in both cases the church has been very adept, and the Francis papacy has been adept, at absorbing and lifting up what it thinks is good and viable in these two challenging systems.
Are there other pieces of the pope’s visit to the States that people should be paying attention to?
DR: The day before the speech to Congress, the pope will go to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and this is something that a lot of people haven’t talked about. It will be very interesting to hear what he is going to say when he canonizes Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan and the founder of the missions in California in the 18th century.
This will be the first time that a canonization will be held on American soil—all the rest have been done in Rome—and the figure of Junípero Serra is controversial. He invites polemics, and the church has gotten a lot of powerful pushback from Native American groups in California.
Serra was beatified with a case file that excluded a lot of the more modern historiography that had been done on him. As a historian, I think part of the problem with the canonization of Serra is the dismissal of Native American ways of knowing, the dismissal of oral histories, and the dismissal of the complexity of Indian society in California before the Spanish arrival.
They weren’t wandering bands. They had whole swaths of territory that they had lived in and husbanded and hunted in for centuries if not millennia. I think it’s too bad that in order to project the virtuous figure worthy of emulation being prayed to by the faithful, you need to, by contrast, paint an abject population that he’s missionizing. I guess if they had asked me, I would have advised them to do a lot more work on the ethnography, the anthropology, the historical picture of Native American life in the folder of the case of Serra.
As part of the pope’s speech that night, he will probably recognize the faults in the man, the feet of clay. All saints have that. But if the pope recognizes the negative price of hagiography and its dismissal of the knowledge of Native American complex social and religious life, if he can correct that contrast between the heroic Serra and the abject, grateful Indian, then that’ll be something. We’ll see what he does with that.