Pope Francis visits St. Maria's Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Luke Russert’s Takeaway: Pope Francis 1; U.S. Cynicism 0

He did not say it was the most important week in American history—“there’s a lot of competition for that,” NBC Capitol Hill correspondent Luke Russert explains with a laugh. But he did say it was one of the most important weeks in U.S. history. Russert was referring, via Twitter, to the week the nation and the world just spent visiting America with Pope Francis.

What was so important about it? “I think in this time of such deep division we in this country were unified by the wonderful grace and spirit of one man.”

Leading up to the arrival of Pope Francis last week, Russert said, “I knew it would be a big deal for American Catholics.

“[But] what I widely underestimated was what a big deal it would be for non-Catholics, even some of my non-religious friends.”

Russert said the pope inspired people of many different faiths to reconsider their beliefs and priorities, launching an impromptu national examen in a country which has become deeply, sometimes harmfully polarized. The pope’s humility and his ability to articulate differences plainly and honestly, but charitably, as he did during his historic address to Congress and during his discussion of “integral development” and structural reform at the United Nations, was something the nation seemed to “desperately need.”

“What a wonderful example for our country and for our world.”

Russert said even the legendarily hard-bitten Washington press corps seemed deeply moved by the pope’s words and presence. How long will the Franciscan euphoria last? That’s not so clear. One journalist grunted to Russert just after the pope’s departure yesterday: “Now back to Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian.”

Indeed the pope’s first miracle may have been banishing the Donald from cable news for almost a week. In fact virtually all other news disappeared from television and computer monitors as the pope’s every move and comment was tracked by network cameras and Internet bloggers and reporters.

“From somebody who has grown up thinking at some points that the church was not getting a fair shake from the media, I thought that the reception the pope received was extremely gracious,” Russert said. Beyond that, it was comprehensive and depicted the genuine passion and enthusiasm of the public—among Catholics and non-Catholics alike—for Pope Francis. “This was an important moment and we captured it,” said Russert, including those moments of sincere and spontaneous emotion from politicians and members of public alike.

Even lengthy Catholic Masses at Madison Square Garden and at the World Meeting of Families were broadcast essentially without interruption, Russert points out. About the only time the coverage broke from Pope Francis, he said, was during the unexpected resignation of House Speaker John Boehner—apparently a collateral Francis effect itself—or “during the pope’s nap time.”

While even the capital’s worst cynics appear to have been vulnerable to the Francis mystique, Russert is not naive enough to expect sweetness and light to suddenly penetrate Washington’s power corridors. But he is convinced this papal visit will have some impact on the American psyche. The trip has particularly reinvigorated, he said, the nation’s Catholics. The shift in tone and focus that Francis represents “has been remolding the view of the church.”

The digerati and cable and talk-radio punditry will pick apart the pope’s gestures, homilies and off-the-cuff comments in the coming days, Russert adds, pushing their specific editorial agendas. “Everyone’s going to write their own take on this pope, you know, fill up news print or drive page clicks—there’s some already saying the pope is ‘not a progressive,’ he’s just a good salesmen.” But, he suggests, the pope’s lasting impression may be something beyond the reach of the media.

“His talking about the poor, that we can’t turn our back on human suffering, the dignity of all people, how important all of that is.”

Russert said the pope this week encouraged people of all faiths or no faiths to think about their lives and think about what is really important to them. He inspired political leadership in Washington, however fleetingly, to pause and do the same. The pope offers a model of merciful, charitable leadership that is an example for “the halls of the capital where I’m standing or the halls of the U.N. building where the president is now.”

Will U.S. politics suddenly transform itself now that Pope Francis has come to America? “Probably not,” Russert said. But what average people consider valuable, “what they think is important” in the aftermath of the pope’s visit “will stick with them.”

“And I think that is something that is far more valuable then what might somehow change [a member of Congress] overnight.”