As he stood atop the steps of the American Airlines plane that was to take him back home to Vatican City, Pope Francis spied one last look at the America that he had never known—or seen—before, and with one last wave, concluded what became a remarkable week in the life of the American Catholic Church.
It seemed as if he were just here—that it was only yesterday (as it seems so now)—and when the plane went off into the distance, we finally realized then that he was gone, and that magical week when he was amongst us has become a part of history and now the stuff of our memories. If he was surprised the size of the crowds he would encounter throughout this trip, he was (as was reported) also taken aback by the attentiveness, the courtesy, the respect and (in some cases) the rapture in which people held him.
As a matter of fact, on board the flight back to Rome and the Vatican, Pope Francis was asked about his reception and how he felt about becoming “a star.” People and reporters throughout this week had been taking to calling him a “rock star,” given the enormous crowds he was attracting at each venue and the tremendous interest his words and his very presence were attracting in every form of social media, from the traditional TV, radio, newspapers and magazines to the millennial generation’s “go-to” news sources of Facebook and Twitter as well as every other mode of communication that could be utilized in saying, “I saw Pope Francis!”
In a way, the reception Pope Francis was receiving was quite similar to the reaction of Americans had to Pope John Paul II when he first visited the United States, back in October 1979, when he visited not only Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, but also the heartland of America’s farm country, Des Moines, Iowa. In the aftermath of that visit, TIME magazine ran a color photograph on the cover of John Paul beside an altar bedecked in an agricultural theme with a caption that read: “John Paul Superstar.” It was pretty much the same for Francis, wherever he went, in that busy, frenetic and happy week.
But when he was asked about his “stardom,” the pope responded in a dual fashion; he talked about the stars in the heavens as opposed to the stardom that comes with being famous or being an earthbound “celebrity.” The actual question was: “Holy Father, in the United States you have become a star. Is it good for the Church that the Pope is a star?”
America’s own Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, recorded the pope’s answer thus: “Do you know what was the title they used for a pope, and ought to be used [still]: the servant of the servants of God. That’s rather different from a star. The stars are beautiful to look at. I like to look at them when the sky is clear, in summer. But the pope must be, must be the servant of the servants of God. Yes, in the media they use this term, but it’s another truth. How many stars have we seen that then fade out and then fall. It’s something that’s fleeting. Instead, being the servant of the servants of God, this is beautiful and does not pass away. That’s what I think.”
If that question gave Pope Francis some pause, imagine what people must be thinking, now that this pastoral visit has ended: has it lived up to their expectations, has it reaffirmed their faith, has he turned out to be what they expected, or was he something totally different from their preconceived notions? Has it reignited a latent attachment toward faith and belief that people might had at one time but lost because of some particular—and painful—circumstance?
His visit has given every person he has encountered—whether in person or through the media—much to ponder and meditate on. But perhaps the biggest question resulting from this trip is: why? Why has this pope—Pope Francis—elicited such emotions and reactions as compared to other leaders today, or even his immediate predecessors as pope? Above all, that is the beguiling question that is begging for an answer, if it can be answered.
The effect is palpable and everyone feels it and has felt it. Everyone from the ordinary person in the street to the pundit in the broadcast booth has not been immune from it and you see it in the outward signs: from the flags and the bunting, the papal cut-outs to the plush pope dolls, to the T-shirts, to the bobble-head Francis offering a wave and a blessing, to the glossy magazines detailing “the life.” You can be a psychoanalyst or an academic ready with all kinds of responses and answers; but the real answer—the obvious answer—has been there all along, from the night of his election and when he stepped before the world on the balcony of St. Peter’s before the glare of the TV cameras: authenticity.
The secret of Pope Francis’ appeal is really no secret at all; it is there for everyone to see. He is authentic. He has no “airs.” He eschews pomp and circumstance for the simplicity of the human encounter. His very authenticity attracts like a magnet does to metal: it draws everyone to him and once drawn, he tries to promote the Gospel values he tries to live and abide by. He does not force, he does not threaten, he does not “pontificate” or stand by ceremony. He reaches out with empathy and understanding to those who feel left out or discouraged. And he reaches out to those who are “already in,” those who believe, but struggle to make sense of what their faith entails and what it all means.
He showed that in the very first days when he decided to sit in the back of the chapel at the Santa Martha guesthouse, among the people, instead of sitting on some gilded papal throne up in the front. He was living out St. Augustine’s dictum that “for you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian.” Or, like the Francis whose name he chose to be called back on that night two years ago, he has sought in his life to preach the Gospel with his actions rather than just his words.
Simply put, that is the “program” that Pope Francis has put into place in these last two years of his pontificate. It may be misunderstood by many and reviled by some, but he is trying to do what scripture scholars have been trying to do for many years: go back to the sources, go back to the basics. In other words, go back to being authentic.
This is what is causing people to take notice. It does not mean that every difficulty will be surmounted or overcome as a result; what it does mean is that we need to look at ourselves—and each other—in a new and better light. We may possess faith and the truth—the Alpha and the Omega—but it is in danger of being “dimmed.” The pope wants us to become better “reflectors” so to speak, of the star that is God’s love, a star that is ever bright and ever lasting. Or, in the pope’s words, one “that is beautiful and does not pass away.” For Pope Francis, this is what it means to be “a star.” This is what it means to be authentic. And that is why, whether for those of us who have faith or not, we are so attracted to him.
Our world needs to be authentic again.
Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.