The secular media have been trying to draw a contrast between Pope Francis and both of his predecessors – St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI – largely on the basis of his simple ways and emphasis on mercy. Given that the secular media are not themselves, to the eye, conspicuous admirers, let alone practitioners, of poverty and meekness, you have to ask yourself: Why? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is less that they are seeking to accurately portray what is distinctive about Francis – he does indeed have a very different way of being pope – than it is a backhanded way to diminish the orthodoxy of two former popes who, in their own ways, lived lives of notable simplicity and charity.
For anyone informed about the recent history of the Catholic Church, it’s amazing that this nonsense that Francis rediscovered mercy and humility got a foothold. It’s as if St. John Paul never lived through trials behind the Iron Curtain, never wrote Dives in Misericordia, never inaugurated Divine Mercy Sunday. Or that Benedict never was the mild grandfatherly figure he was and is, didn’t write repeatedly about God’s Love, indeed that God is love ( Deus caritas est). These are not exactly esoteric secrets known only to a few specialists, but are a central part of the public witness of Catholicism for upwards of thirty-five years – and, in differing keys, for centuries before.
There are differences though, too, of course. It’s perhaps worth noting that, unlike John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis will not finish his Cuban pilgrimage in Havana. They, too, went to Santiago de Cuba to do homage to the Virgin of Charity in El Cobre, but departed for home after large Masses in the capital. It would be wrong to read too much into the particulars of Francis in Cuba, but he deliberately chose to do the opposite of the other popes. He said his big Mass the first full day, Sunday, in Havana and did the public visits that will get the most commentary among secular journalists. But he will finish his Cuba trip in a contemplative place dedicated to one of the famous Marian shrines, not as an afterthought, as some journalists might think, but as a kind of spiritual culmination.
Yesterday he flew to Holguín, the third largest city in Cuba, but still something of a backwater. He did another large public Mass and his homily called upon Catholics – and all people of good will – to think: do you believe that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough so that a traitor (like Matthew, the Roman tax collector in the day’s Gospel) can be touched by God and become a friend; do you believe that the carpenter’s son can also be God Incarnate?
Then, last night, after the brief further journey to Santiago de Cuba, he made what looked like an almost private, deeply recollected visit to the chapel of the Virgin there. This morning, he’ll end his time in Cuba that very place, where the kind of popular Catholicism he often promotes – with its images, local flavor, and direct appeal to the people – is at its strongest. It will be from that distinctive setting that he will later today fly to America.
Which is fitting, because there’s a direct and distinguished connection between El Cobre and America. I owe to my EWTN colleague, Miami-based Fr. Roberto Cid, a story about the Virgin of Charity at El Cobre, that I’d never heard during the previous two visits by popes. The shrine and the devotion to the Virgin go back a long way in Cuban history. Indeed, the story is that the image of Our Lady holding the baby Jesus was found in1612 floating in the Bay of Nipe by two Indians and a black slave. It probably came from the province of Toledo in Spain, fell off a passing Spanish galleon, and became a unifying image for both the Church in Cuba and the Cuban people as a whole.
Ernest Hemingway, of course, lived for many years in Cuba and won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for a novel he wrote there, The Old Man and the Sea, in which an elderly fisherman (significantly named Santiago) tries to land a big fish. It’s a story full of religious and moral symbols. At one point, after he’s hooked the fish, there’s this from Santiago:
“Bad news for you, fish,” he said and shifted the line over the sacks that covered his shoulders. He was comfortable but suffering, although he did not admit the suffering at all. “I am not religious,” he said. “But I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise.”
Hemingway converted to Catholicism in the 1920s, fell away amid multiple marriages and turmoil, but often spoke and wrote with admiration, if also occasional ambivalence, about the Faith. Some have speculated that the fish he himself prayed to catch was the Nobel Prize. And that that was why, when he came back to Cuba with the medal, he went to El Cobre and had it installed in the shrine of the Virgin, where it remains to this day.
When Francis flies from Santiago de Cuba to Washington after this morning’s Mass, he will transition from a place where a deep popular Catholicism is quite palpable to an America mired in ever crazier forays into “gender theory” and mounting threats to religious liberty, especially the liberty of Catholic institutions. We know he will speak passionately about the environment, about immigration, about (again) mercy and humility.
But in addition to being an economic and political leader, America is, for good and evil, a culture shaping force around the globe. Finding the way to convey his whole message about the human person to such an America will tax even his charismatic powers. The next few days may very well be a kind of watershed for the presence of the Church in the world.