Incredibly, it's his first visit ever to our country -- not just his first visit as pope but his first visit here in his entire life. As a bishop and cardinal, the pope almost never travelled outside of Argentina. He said he wanted to stay close to his flock and not be an "airport bishop." It seems he's never had much of a taste for the day-to-day administrative duties of a pastor or bishop nor has he been into the diplomatic functions, for lack of a better term.
But now, he's Pope Francis and he has an entirely different responsibility.
Now that he's in the United States, here's what we believe the pope must do -- and we stress that he can do these things without being any less hospitable or without abandoning his main agenda, whatever that might be:
1) Pope Francis must reach out to those who have ardently defended Catholic doctrine and Catholic teaching. No matter how popular he or she may be, without his core -- his base -- no leader can survive very long, let alone triumph.
2) Pope Francis must reaffirm benchmark teachings on abortion, marriage and other critical matters of faith and morals. If the Catholic church does not support these foundations of faith, then everything else may eventually be at risk.
3) The pope must begin to make the impact of his actions, words and teachings clear to his bishops, cardinals and other clergy in the United States. Right now, though everyone is excited about the vaulted "Francis effect" they're not sure how all this translates at the diocesan and parish level. The pope needs to begin to make that clear. What exactly will the changes be (if any) and how would they or should they be carried out? The pope hasn't been big on details. That will not suffice much longer.
4) The pope needs to remind Catholics that going to church every Sunday and partaking of the sacraments are vital to being a Catholic. Right now, most self-proclaimed "Catholics" are simply not practicing Catholics. They're not going to church, not taking the sacraments and not participating in parish life. That's hurting the church and diluting its impact.
5) The pope must must address head-on, the culture of death in all its manifestations and with all its ramifications. This is particularly important if he is to reach out to youth and reinvigorate the power of the family and the strength of family life. The pervasive culture of death (including drugs, promiscuity, a cult of danger and violence, objectification, debasement and disrespect for the human body, and the celebration of reckless and destructive behavior) must be hit head-on. Attendant to this is the moral ambiguity that confronts us on a daily basis.
Pope Francis is very popular.
That's fine. And a certain amount of this comes with every new pope -- especially one who smiles a lot, likes people and appears to say what the media want to hear.
But popularity is not moral authority.
In fact, the whole notion of popularity is basically political, often fleeting and somewhat adolescent. You know, like the song from the hugely successful Broadway musical, Wicked entitled Popular:
WITH UNPREPOSSESSING FEATURES
I REMIND THEM ON THEIR OWN BEHALF
TO THINK OF
CELEBRATED HEADS OF STATE OR
SPECIALLY GREAT COMMUNICATORS
DID THEY HAVE BRAINS OR KNOWLEDGE?
DON'T MAKE ME LAUGH!
THEY WERE POPULAR! PLEASE--
IT'S ALL ABOUT POPULAR!
IT'S NOT ABOUT APTITUDE
IT'S THE WAY YOU'RE VIEWED
SO IT'S VERY SHREWD TO BE
VERY VERY POPULAR -- LIKE ME!
Well, by the measure of history, it's not really all about being popular. The greatest leaders were often unpopular in their own time. The greatest artists and writers and composers often went unheralded until years after they were gone.
Still, our popular culture exalts its first name -- popularity.
But a religious leader like the pope must transcend popularity for, in a way popularity is the enemy of faith. Faith is boundless and timeless.
The Pope's not a pop star. He must transcend all that.
So far, he has not done so. And this remains his challenge.