Celebrating American Catholics
As providence would have it, the cast recording of the acclaimed new Broadway musical Hamilton dropped the same week as the Pope’s visit. This line—spoken by the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, before a high-five and a revolutionary victory—played through my earphones on my ride in to the papal parade on Washington’s National Mall, and came to mind throughout the morning as I joined fellow pilgrims to welcome another beloved son of immigrants to our city.
The crowd along the parade route was jovial and kaleidoscopic. A few men and women religious bookended the route—kids asked for selfies when they saw the habits, and the friars and sisters happily obliged—but the overwhelming majority of the pilgrims were families. They brought wide-eyed infants, smiling grandmothers with canes, and an abundance of parade paraphernalia. Mostly, they brought an exuberance so persistent it kept them standing and cheering for four hours in hopes of seeing the Pope speed by for about thirty seconds.
The Pope would later bless and kiss those wide-eyed infants—let the children come to me, we were all caught thinking, watching what Ross Douthat has called Francis’ “living Christian iconography.” The crowd would make space when the elderly and disabled at the front of the line needed a place to rest, putting their coats down for them to sit. Somehow, even more flags and signs appeared in the crowd after they passed security, many purchased on the spot for whatever change they had.
A man in a bright yellow “I <3 Pope Francis” t-shirt wore the Peruvian flag as a cape, and put his toddler on his shoulders. The little boy waved a Vatican flag and squealed “¡Papa!” at every white media truck that went by. While his family chattered in Spanish, the teenagers in front of me livetweeted in Vietnamese and a young black woman next to them prayed the Rosary in English. We erupted into occasional olés together, we prayed together, but mostly we jabbered together, exchanging stories of pilgrimage and commute. Everyone went silent momentarily when the jumbotron outside the Washington Monument began broadcasting the White House papal welcome, as if out of liturgical habit. The entire scene was aggressively Catholic.
Even more so, and in a way more touchingly so, it was fiercely American. In Washington, D.C., what was long one of the most important and proud black-majority cities on earth, a black Catholic choir welcomed the Pope to the White House with the country’s beloved contribution to Christian music: gospel. The crowd clapped when the Pope introduced himself as the son of immigrants—“somos también inmigrantes, Papa,” the Peruvian father shouted, “we are immigrants too.” An enormous group of people who otherwise seemed to have little in common started tearing up when the Pope said “God bless America.”
After the parade, the Pope opened his address to Congress by thanking them for inviting him—another “son of this great continent”—to speak “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” He invoked the spiritual strengths of four prominent American Christians: the freedom-fighting spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the inclusive dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., the passionate social-justice activism of Dorothy Day, and the contemplative dialoguing of Thomas Merton. He thanked the legislature for this opportunity to present “the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people.”
Later that day, he celebrated a Mass at the country’s patronal church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Mass featured the linguistic and liturgical diversity of American Catholicism, from the multilingual petitionary prayers to the inclusion of 18th-century Baroque Mexican music alongside contemporary compositions and traditional Latin hymns.
In Catholicism, this kind of diversity in unity is often described using the biblical image of the Church as the body of Christ: we are many parts, but one body. Throughout the Pope’s visit, the phrase that came to my mind was e pluribus unum.
The Pope’s visit has been accompanied by a media frenzy in search of the “Francis Effect.” The Pope inspires good feelings of inclusiveness and a-partisan identity—so what? Will he change doctrine? Will he revitalize the Catholic left? Will he get more people to go to church? The discussion strikes me as well-intentioned, but misplaced. The “Francis Effect” as a projection for the future was never going to be reasonably predictable. The “Francis Effect” as an atmosphere of belonging and openness is already present and visible. And for American Catholics, if not for the anxious media, that might just suffice.
In his remarks to Pope Francis at Independence Hall, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia name-dropped Alexander Hamilton in praising the contributions of immigrants to the nation’s civic fabric. It may have been a coincidence that Hamilton was mentioned just as so many people are discovering his story for the first time through the popular musical, but it’s wildly appropriate. Hamilton tells the story of the unlikeliest Founding Father using hip-hop and rap, a cast almost entirely composed of people of color, and a lens on the American Revolution that portrays the war as a gritty struggle rather than a fated victory for liberty. It tells an old story in new voices, and in so doing it enables people who have often felt excluded from the narrative of American history to feel it is their birthright. It shows Americans of color that the traditions of their nation belong to them, and what it looks like when they say so.
Pope Francis is doing something similar for American Catholics. He is telling an old story (his politics, however vaguely controversial their stylistic expression, are unsurprisingly traditional and his preaching is about two thousand years old) but throughout his visit he made a point of using new voices—American voices. He canonized an American saint, recalled American heroes, enjoyed American music and American liturgy, and exalted American ingenuity and uniqueness. His visit showed American Catholics what it looks like to be rooted in both of their traditions, and make that visible. Francis does for Catholicism what Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, does for American history: he invites a new audience to take part.
That doesn’t mean the Pope’s visit will produce a surge in American Mass-attendance numbers any more than Hamilton will cause history Ph.D. applications to spike. What it does mean is that for a few days, American Catholics got to look at themselves represented in their fullness and their beauty, and they got to celebrate that. For many of us—who spend so much time writing about the next religious-liberty fight or fitting in at our secular schools or feeling out of place in a country that doesn’t always feel like it counts us among its own—that will be enough.
Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.