Funk on Faith

Pope’s loving gestures, even more than his words, inspired crowds’ jubilance

Pope Francis touches the cheek of a young girl as he prepares to depart the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, en route to Andrews Air Force Base.
Pope Francis touches the cheek of a young girl as he prepares to depart the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, en route to Andrews Air Force Base. AP

Last Sunday afternoon, as I and 860,000 (or so) other people waited for Pope Francis to arrive at an outdoor Mass in Philadelphia, a sudden roar of excitement – cheers mixed with applause mixed with screams – rose from the massive congregation.

The pope-mobile had been spotted coming our way.

A middle-aged mom near me jumped up and down like a 1960s-era teenager who had just had a sighting of John, Paul, George or Ringo. “I saw the back of him!” screamed the woman, who later identified herself as Mary Anne Coia, a parishioner at St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catholic Church in Doylestown, Pa.

I witnessed this kind of pope-mania all last week – in the TV reports from Washington and New York and then in the flesh in Philly. And it left me wondering: At a time when Americans are divided and in the sourest of moods, why all this boundless enthusiasm for a 78-year-old Argentine priest in white?

When I asked Coia why she was jumping up and down, she alluded to her religion’s belief that the pope is the successor of Peter – the apostle Jesus called the rock on which he would build his church. “He is a descendent of the apostles,” Coia said. “So I suspect he has a direct connection.”

To God, she meant. For many Catholics – and I am one – being in the presence of a pope can feel like a brush with holiness and history.

But I don’t remember this kind of papal craze when Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008. And Francis’ fans include a stunning number of non-Catholics and even many nonbelievers.

What is it about this guy?

I pondered that question for days. And then, on the night before I left to fly back to Charlotte, I got an answer.

It came to me as I read one of the many “Welcome Pope Francis!” banners hanging all over The City of Brotherly Love. There, on the banner, along with a picture of the pontiff looking delighted, was a quote from him. It read: “Love is the measure of faith.”

In other words, it’s not enough to just profess or even preach faith. You also have to live it by loving. Or as Paul, another of Jesus’ early followers, wrote in one of his letters, “If I have faith (enough) to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Pope Francis’ sermons and speeches last week were filled with calls to reach out and care for others – especially society’s most vulnerable and marginalized. But what spoke even louder to people were his actions: Meeting in solidarity with inmates, with undocumented immigrants, with the inner-city poor, with the disabled, with the elderly and with children, he walked the talk.

And he did it with humility and affection. He was a pastor, not a monarch. He showed up in a tiny Fiat, not a luxury limo. And as he waved and smiled to the jubilant crowds, he looked for babies to kiss and people in wheelchairs to bless.

“Giving, Getting Love” was how a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer described the interaction between the pope and people lining the streets.

Most Americans can smell phonies – our current culture and politics are full of ’em. But in Pope Francis even people who don’t subscribe to Christian beliefs could detect the irresistible fragrance of authenticity.

That doesn’t mean some weren’t disappointed. Those on the left and right who had hoped to count the pope as an ally found that he didn’t fit neatly within any of the labels that define American political warfare. Liberals who cheered Pope Francis’ calls to welcome immigrants and combat climate change later felt betrayed at the news that he had privately met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who’d gone to jail after saying her religious beliefs kept her from signing marriage certificates for same-sex couples. And conservatives in Congress who oppose abortion applauded the pope’s affirmation of the sanctity of life only to halt mid-clap when he said that also meant he favored a global ban on the death penalty.

But, as I interviewed Francis enthusiasts in Philadelphia last week, I heard the same thing over and over: It was his loving, Jesus-like gestures, even more than his words, that touched them the most.

It reminded me of a quote widely attributed to Francis of Assisi – the saint this pope took his papal name from. “Preach the Gospel at all times,” he said, “and when necessary use words.”