Pope Francis concluded his pilgrimage in Cuba yesterday in Santiago – the very same city where his predecessor, Benedict XVI, slipped and fell in his room, and (as we now know) decided that he would have to resign the papacy, since he no longer had the ability to carry out the duties of the office.
Francis himself looked very tired there. He walked with a limp owing to sciatica, and suffers other general ailments. But powerful spirits hover around that ancient shrine. And in the homily during his final Mass in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre and even more in a later meeting with ordinary families, he came alive, proposing “a revolution of tenderness” and recognition of the family as a “school of humanity,” a very different revolution indeed than the one headquartered in various offices – and security forces – in Havana.
Communist revolutions everywhere talk about raising up workers via a politics that invades every nook and cranny of human life, and the redemption of all humanity through the ideological redefinition of everything in materialistic terms. It’s utterly preposterous, of course, since their history is everywhere one of tyranny and brutality. The Cuban regime couldn’t even allow a few dissidents to talk with the Holy Father. Yet some there haven’t seen the writing on the wall when politics takes on this ridiculously inflated importance. Some even here in America have a similar mentality without knowing it.
It’s unfortunate that when the pope arrived in Washington yesterday evening, every major media outlet immediately tried to place him in partisan terms – is he closer to the Republicans or the Democrats, will he push harder on the life issues or on environment and immigration? It seems that we almost can’t conceive anymore that a religious figure might come here primarily as a pastor, with a pastor’s concerns on an entirely different plane. Indeed, on the plane flight from Cuba to Washington, Francis felt the need to tell the press  onboard that he isn’t a leftist, and if the journalists did their jobs better, they would know that – and make it clear to others.
There’s no better way of entirely missing the real significance of Francis’s papacy than to limit yourself to this partisan sparring – though for the record, I too have more than a few worries over some of his public pronouncements on environment, immigration, global economics, and several other major questions. But I’m prepared to say, after close observation, that if you want to know where the heart of Francis lies, look at his talk with families – his last public speech in Cuba – and the commentary my colleagues and provided on EWTN television.
The American and global media may get tired of Francis before he’s done in America at the World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia next Sunday. They prefer the easier, more familiar partisan debate of his speeches in Congress and then at the U.N. But if they were to follow him all the way to the end, to Philadelphia, they might hear something as potentially transformative for our own troubled country as several of his speeches were for Cuba.
I’ve remarked before that I regard it as significant that Francis did not return to the Cuban capital before leaving for America. He often speaks of going out to “the peripheries,” and has a whole theory of how reform and revitalization of the Church has historically moved from those peripheries to national and international centers, including Rome.
In Cuba, that theory became concrete: Our Lady of Charity has played a key role in establishing the identity of the Church and the Cuban nation, even though her shrine is located in the relatively obscure village of El Cobre. It’s in El Cobre, however, that’s what’s living in Cuba still has a home. What has managed to survive in Havana is destined, sooner or later, for the ash heap of history. The Communists there just won’t admit it yet – though they probably know it.
Francis was busy about his Father’s business yesterday. The Gospel recounted how the Virgin Mary, after the Annunciation, went in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, already pregnant with John the Baptist. Francis took this opening to speak of “Grandmothers, mothers, and so many others who with tenderness and love were signs of visitation, valor, and faith for their grandchildren and their families.” This, of course, pays tribute to the quiet, often hidden role of women in transmitting the faith, especially in totalitarian countries where public practice of religion can lead to discrimination in schooling, employment, and government services. Priests who deal with Catholics in Miami say Cuban exiles often come to them without documents that record their baptisms – because their grandmothers had to perform the sacrament privately.
Francis wasn’t content to leave things in this private mode, however. He turned to another favorite theme of his – how we must go out of our own Catholic spaces to carry out an evangelical task: “Like Mary, Mother of Charity, we want to be a Church which goes forth to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation. Like Mary we want to be a Church that can accompany all those ‘pregnant’ situations of our people, committed to life, culture, society, not washing our hands, but rather walking with our brothers and sisters.” A Church-y matter, to be sure, but perhaps also a signal that it’s time for the Church to take the word to a regime that’s tottering, and should be made to fall in the right direction.
When he spoke to the families, he went ever further. He described families, real imperfect families, the kind we live in, as by that very fact the places where we learn to live with one another. Further, such families should be viewed not as a problem but an opportunity, “true spaces of freedom.” This is not mere Catholic sentimentality. The Church has long taught that the family is the basic unit of society, not the isolated individual, not the state.
Ever since Plato and Aristotle, two philosophers who greatly influenced the Church, there’s been a solid philosophical appreciation of the family. Plato tried the Communist route in his Republic: children should not be brought up by individual mothers and fathers, but by the state so that they will live in perfect equality and will consider everyone as a brother (read “comrades”). Plato’s pupil Aristotle, who admired his master in many ways, said no, absolutely no: we learn how to be brothers and sisters, to honor the elderly, to value the young and future generations, precisely in the family. Without the family, the basic unit of society, we cannot become good as individuals, still less can our societies recognize what should be the real relations among us, or the value of the traditions preserved by the old precisely for the sake of the future flourishing of the young.
So listen to the liberal/conservative controversies around Francis this week, if you must. And do not cease to think strongly and clearly about what is good, for you, and for all of us, at this moment in human history. And if you want something enlightening as you reflect, don’t be put off by the media hype. Stay steady. Listen to Francis in Philadelphia Sunday.