The Pope's U.S. Visit Isn't About Politics for Many Catholics

The admiration for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church transcends partisan politics for many who came to cheer him.

People wave and cheer on the parade route for Pope Francis on Sept. 23, 2015, in Washington.

Photographer: Alex Brandon/AP

Even after Pope Francis and President Obama took turns speaking about climate change and poverty on the White House lawn Wednesday, many in the crowd along the parade route said the politics of the papal visit was of little to no interest to them: “You don't mix water and oil,” said Daniel Paredes, meaning politics and religion.

Paredes, a Peruvian-born 42-year-old consultant from McLean, Virginia, described his own politics as “pro-life,” rather than naming a party. But he also said he sees nothing particularly partisan about the pope's environmental message. Taking care of the planet “is like cleaning your home because you don't want to live in the dirt,” said Paredes, who'd left his own home at 3:30 in the morning and finally caught a glimpse of the pontiff eight hours later. “It's common sense.”

Still, a number of people in the heavily Latino crowd balked at the idea that the trip might be seen as political—and said that against the backdrop of a presidential race in which the Republican presidential front-runner has vowed to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. For them, the affirmation they're getting from a pope who speaks their language couldn't have come at a better time.  

And overtly political messages to the pope, his flock, and their elected representatives were all over town. “My pope fights inequality and climate change,” read one handmade sign held by a man in the crowd. “Does your member of Congress?”

The AFL-CIO printed and, through several churches, distributed thousands of signs that said, “Workers welcome Pope Francis” and “In Solidarity with Pope Francis” for the faithful to wave at the parade.

Right down the street from where Francis prayed with bishops at St. Matthew's Cathedral, a giant banner hanging outside the building that houses the LGBT civil-rights group Human Rights Campaign says, “We are your children, your teachers, your faithful. Welcomed by God, dismissed by our bishops. Pope Francis, will you welcome us home?”

The supposedly anti-capitalist pope's visit was naturally a marketing opportunity for street vendors hawking Francis T-shirts, keychains, dolls, and more. Even a homeless man selling newspapers saw an opportunity. “Support the pope,” he called out to passersby, “support the homeless!”

And in the marketplace of ideas, atheists and believers who don't see the pope as a fellow Christian were among those evangelizing on the National Mall. “You look to man to find your religion,” a young man holding Bible aloft shouted at the crowd. “Turn back to the word of God!”

Pope francisco leaving the cathedral of st. matthew in his fiat 500 after morning prayer washington on wednesday.

Pope Francisco leaves the Cathedral of St. Matthew in his Fiat 500 after the morning prayer in Washington on Wednesday.

Photographer: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Some 2,000 of those in the crowd began the day at one of the Spanish or bilingual pre-dawn Masses held at various Washington parishes, then marched to the Mall to see Francis.

Fr. Evelio Menjivar, pastor of Our Lady Queen of the Americas Parish, led several hundred Catholics from a 6 a.m. service at Immaculate Conception Church near the downtown convention center. “We understand him and he understands us” in ways that go well beyond language, he said of the pope. “He's coming as a pastor—even to Congress,” Menjivar said, and “if we see it through the eyes of politics, we'll misunderstand.”

Singing and cheering for the nearly an hour it took them to get to the Mall, the group coming from Immaculate Conception shouted, “¡Francisco, amigo, Jesus está contigo!” (Francis, friend, Jesus is with you) and “Se siente, se siente, el Papa está presente (we can feel it, the pope is here).

In the hours they stood waiting for Francis to pass by, the crowd watched him and the president speak on a giant screen set up in front of the Washington Monument, and cheered loudest when Francis spoke of being the son of an immigrant family, and when he ended his remarks with “God bless America.”

“I believe he is the first [pope] to speak for those who can't speak, to speak for the poor,” said Orlando Mejia, a hotel worker who immigrated here from El Salvador 30 years ago. As the first pontiff from the Americans, Mejia said, “he's something new for the church, and we're so proud.”

When the former Jorge Bergoglio's Pope-mobile arrived at last, and he waved and made the sign of the cross over the crowd, even a man passing out pamphlets accusing Pope Francis of being the anti-Christ stood on his tip-toes to get a good look. “Look how excited he is,” Fr. Menjivar said, laughing. 

A group of young men born in El Salvador and Guatemala looked on the verge of tears in the selfies they were taking, and Claudia Preza, the president of a non-profit that works with immigrants, said just those few seconds Francis was in front of her had been well worth a wait that began before it was light out. “He's the highest authority for us,” she said. “He blessed us all, and that's all we wanted.”