Can the Pope’s New Words Change Washington’s Old Ways?

Pope Francis lands on U.S. soil and suddenly the official language of Washington and politics and journalism shifts. I keep hearing words like “joy” and “compassion” and phrases like “He speaks service to power.” The vocabulary is positive, the energy and feeling of hope anywhere around the Pope palpable. Turn on the TV and commentators say the Pope radiates empathy and leadership. His little black Fiat becomes the instant symbol of what he stands for: humility and giving to others. In Washington, hearing that being humble and giving without expecting anything in return is the message of the day? I find this absolutely jarring but wonderful.

President Obama had a huge grin when he welcomed the Pope to the White House on Wednesday and listed all the ways “Americans value the role the Catholic Church plays in the strength of America”: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. As a Catholic, I am not at all used to hearing my faith praised. I got up at 4:30 A.M. to brave disorganized security lines at the White House, to bask in the dawn’s early light and wait for hours on the West Lawn with a mere 20,000 others, most dressed up as if they were going to church, reverent and polite. Seeing the U.S. military in all its splendor parading in front of the Pope reminded me of Stalin’s scoff during World War II, “How many divisions has the Pope got?” These days, through Twitter (and social media and the 24-hour news cycle), @Pontifex, with his penchant for the trenchant gesture, has a moral force and sway any world leader would have to acknowledge.

Pope Francis is the third pope I have seen in person. The first was John Paul II, during Holy Week in Rome in 1985, when I was pregnant with my son, Luke, and when my late husband, Tim Russert, was the NBC News executive in charge of overseeing the Today show segment that broadcast Holy Week live with Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley. In Rome I was not only privileged to have the Pope bless my womb but also to come back 14 months later to have him raise Luke up in the air in his arms and pronounce him “very nice.” Pope Benedict XVI came to Washington in 2008, when the Nationals baseball stadium was brand new; he said Mass there and held V.I.P. receptions at the Apostolic Nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue. He was remote to most American Catholics, and for a time it seemed that, fairly or unfairly, his unspoken message was an intention to impose an ideological or scriptural litmus test on believers.

Francis is so different. He is the shepherd goading and tending his flock. He used the shepherd analogy multiple times in his speech to the American bishops gathered at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington later that day. The talk—in Spanish with English subtitles—was played on jumbo screens on the grounds of the basilica at Catholic University, while another 20,000 of us patiently waited for him to say Mass and to canonize the Franciscan missionary, Father Junipero Serra (who, by the way, was already basically canonized in public-school history texts as California’s George Washington when I was growing up there). The way to tend to the flock, the shepherd said, was to remember that “the brother or sister we wish to reach or redeem, with the power and closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.” His most important admonition was, “Remember to keep focused on the core which unifies everything: ‘You did it unto me’” (Matthew 25:40).

Jeb Bush

I was struck by the diversity of the flock that had gathered on the basilica grounds. Sitting under a tree was Father Thomas Michel, a Jesuit professor of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service—in Qatar! He told me his students “know more about Beyoncé and Taylor Swift than they do about ISIS.” Rather than seeing the church as “a bunch of rituals,” Father Michel explained, “the Pope sees it more as gospel values. It is why he is so lenient towards gays and lesbians, because they tend to be groups that are judged harshly and shunned by society. He sees them as people you have to respect for their dignity.” The Pope’s pattern also follows for refugees and prisoners: “The Church should be acting more like Jesus to those most in need.” I met a vivacious 46-year-old human-rights activist dressed in a scalloped sundress, who told me the Pope’s example nudged her to act on her vocation: she is about to become a nun. I chatted with a family from Guatemala (in this country legally) for whom the Pope was their “spiritual guide.” Why, I asked in Spanish, did they think some Republican candidates for president were speaking so stridently about people like them? “Perhaps they don’t have God in their hearts,” Antonio Cañones, the father, told me. “For these kind of people, they only think about money or fame.”

Barbara Reed, a chic blonde near my seat, from Barrington, Illinois, wearing an Hermès belt and multiple gold bangles, had been invited by Speaker John Boehner to the Mass. She admitted that some of the Pope’s views on immigration and income inequality “challenge me. It’s a bit uncomfortable for me to hear, but it’s the journey. Some of the things he’s most interested in—that’s not me, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? There’s more to this journey with Christ than comfort.”

Jeb Bush, whom I spotted sitting down in front with his wife, wasn’t quite so candid. When I asked him if anything the Pope had said made him feel uncomfortable, he answered that he hadn’t heard the Pope say anything political all day! I mentioned climate change. (Pope Francis had specifically complimented Obama’s clean-air initiative at the White House.) “I think the climate’s going to change,” Bush told me. “I think we have to be respectful of the climate. It’s a gift from God.” (In the morning ceremony the president had referred to “our planet, God’s magnificent gift to us.”) Next week in Washington the government could shut down. That will be the first test of whether, by shame or by love, the Pope’s vocabulary applies and his message has truly been heard. Or were John Boehner’s tears during the Pope’s address to Congress—and the surprise announcement of his resignation—already the first sign?