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Pope of the people: Francis taps emotional wellspring for Americans

Pope Francis kisses a baby in Philadelphia on

Pope Francis kisses a baby in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. The pope spoke at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on his first visit to the United States. Credit: AP/ Jim Bourg

Ismaela Miranda had been full of gleeful determination as she waited amid a six-deep crowd that lined Manhattan's Fifth Avenue last week -- a smiling picture of giddy joy.

Moments later, shortly after Pope Francis whisked past in the backseat of a modest Fiat sedan, she was in tears.

"In a world so corrupt there is a man who wants to bring peace and hope to the world," said Miranda, of Brooklyn.

The presence of Francis, who for six days energized and enthralled crowds with a white-robed flurry of activity and humble optimism, tapped a deep emotional wellspring among often-jaded Americans.

"Look at all the people who are here just to see one person," Miranda said. "I cry because I get so emotional that there is faith and hope in all of us still."

For many of those who have flocked to see the pope this past week, Francis' message of hope, dispensed both in the bright glare of meetings with national and world leaders, as well as during encounters with impoverished individuals, sick children or young students he met during his whirlwind tour, touched them personally.

"Whether you are Catholic or not Catholic, whether you believe or you don't believe, this is a tremendous moment," said Caprice Gray, 29, a public health worker from Harlem, who said her religious upbringing brought her to Catholic and African Methodist Episcopal churches alike.

Miranda, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, said Francis' involvement in brokering a thaw in relations between Washington and Havana demonstrated an eagerness to use the power of his personality to bring about reconciliation between ossified adversaries. She even held out hope that her fleeting public audience with Francis -- she said he waved in her direction from his Fiat as he passed -- might bring her absolution.

"My family are still there, my parents were born there, so we were really excited when he visited Cuba," she said. "And I'm hoping I'm blessed for real, that when he raised his hand, my sins were forgiven and I'm on to the next day."

Skepticism before visit

To be sure, there were considerable doubts whether the papal visit would turn into the American love fest that it became.

Many observers believed the pope faced a potentially difficult audience as he arrived in a United States riven by such flashpoints as income disparity, same-sex marriage and the ability of women to terminate a pregnancy.

Op-ed columnists from both the left and the right have at times been critical.

Peter Steinfels, a former co-director of Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture, this month wrote a syndicated column chiding the pope for not revisiting the church's opposition to birth control. "The church's unwillingness to grapple with a deep and highly visible gap between official teachings and actual practice undermines Catholic vigor and unity at every level," Steinfels wrote on Sept. 11.

And just days before the pope arrived in the nation's capital, conservative Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a stinging op-ed that accused Francis of "rhetorical exhibitionism." Will characterized the pope as "trailing clouds of sanctimony" while favoring "impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false" policies that would "devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak."

Yet once Francis arrived in the United States Tuesday afternoon, an often joyful reverence seemed to pour from people at every point on the political compass. There is even speculation that the decision by Republican conservative John Boehner to step down as speaker of the House was made easier by an interaction with Francis during the pope's visit to Congress. Boehner was said to have been brought to tears by Francis' face-to-face request that Boehner pray for him.

'This pope is different'

Funmi Balogun, who was among a crowd waiting to attend a Mass officiated by the pope at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said she deeply admired Francis despite her more fundamentalist leanings as a self-described born-again Christian.

Balogun, a breast cancer survivor, said a friend gave her the ticket to the Mass as a gift, believing Francis' blessing could make a difference in her life.

"This pope is different from every pope, because he's so human and so down-to-Earth," said Balogun, of Glen Burnie, Maryland. "He doesn't see where you are in life; he sees a human being."

Abbe Klebanoff, a Philadelphia librarian, said Saturday that although she is not Catholic, she has been deeply moved by his message of inclusion, one she hopes will be heard by America's politicians.

"I love this pope; I'm Jewish, but I love his message," Klebanoff said during a morning bike ride obstructed by one of the hundreds of pope-related crowd-control barricades that seemingly turned Philadelphia's streets into an endless maze of detours. "I well up with tears when I think about it. . . . We've lost our love and he has said to us, love, let's love" despite our differences.

Bay Shore resident Veronica Reyes also struggled to contain her feelings, after having organized a bus caravan that Saturday bore more than 1,000 mostly Hispanic Long Islanders to the City of Brotherly Love.

"We are all full of emotion just being here," Reyes, 42, said in Spanish. "This is our first Hispanic pope and he brings a message to all the world and we hope his words bring peace."

Authenticity touches many

Fordham University religion Professor Terrence W. Tilley said three factors apparently helped the voice of the soft-spoken Francis seem to temporarily quiet the din of an American public discourse that in this political season has been amped up by economic friction and partisan rancor.

Tilley said that for an American people weary of poll-tested pronouncements and sharply partisan invective, the pope's humility, lack of political orthodoxy and seeming off-the-cuff candidness imbue him with an authenticity that has provided a surprising wellspring of respect and admiration.

"When he spoke to Congress, the subtext of his message was 'don't campaign, govern; work together,' " said Tilley, who is Fordham's Avery Cardinal Dulles S.J. Professor of Catholic Theology. "The same was true at the United Nations, where he told world leaders if you refuse to attend to the environment, you are refusing to attend to those who are most vulnerable and in need."

"His earlier comment about homosexual people seeking God, when he said, 'Who am I to judge them,' set an incredibly powerful tone," Tilley said. "His solidarity with those who are marginalized socially, politically, economically or ecologically creates an atmosphere in which his words can be heard welcomingly and positively, not restrictively, and if you would, exclusively."

Gray, the health worker from Harlem, said she was struck by how Francis seemed able to touch the hearts of people of widely differing views and from divergent religious traditions.

"I was sandwiched between a woman who was devoutly Catholic her whole life, an Italian American, and another woman who was a complete nonbeliever," said Gray, who was among tens of thousands of people who lined Fifth Avenue as the pope made his way toward St. Patrick's Cathedral on Thursday. "The fact that he is bringing us all together, his message is one of unification."

Tilley voiced a similar point of view.

Shortly after a Friday evening Mass officiated by Francis ended at Madison Square Garden, Tilley said he regarded the pope's visit to that point to be a triumph of his ability to project strong views without dividing his audience into polarized camps.

"So far he has not made a single misstep," Tilley said. "He has been seen to be himself in terms of humility and mercy, has shaped his speeches to his audience in ways that have been appropriate. I'd give him an A. And I'm a very hard grader."

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