Pope Francis has come to America, and the excitement with which the American church is welcoming him can be explained by the American religious culture, the personality of this non-European Pope, the Pope's agenda for issues that are key to North American Christianity, and the possibility that this is the only trip the Argentine Pope will make to the United States. It would be difficult to measure the impact that the Pope's visit may have, in a country as large as the United States. But anyone who wants to make sense of the world should keep an eye on Francis's visit.
It's a difficult trip to make for a Pope who is not familiar with America. It is also difficult for Americans, who are in large part struggling to understand the Pope, his language, his background, and his non-sectarian vision for Catholicism. Never in the history of the modern church has anyone gone so far as to accuse (even covertly) the Pope of heresy, as is currently taking place with part of the self-appointed custodians of orthodoxy (several of which are bishops and cardinals, while others are theologians who are well-positioned within the ecclesiastical system). In American politics, Bergoglio has many friends within the American church. In this sense, it is a trip more sensitive than any other in 50 years of visits by Popes to the United States of America.
The first area is institutional and political. The Pope has an excellent relationship with President Obama, almost as strong as the relationship between Pope John Paul II and Reagan. This is one matter that renders the Pope politically reckless in the eyes of his church and his bishop brethren, as well as in the eyes of conservative Catholic politicians. But you can accuse Pope Francis of anything, except naiveté. This will be clear from the speech he will deliver -- in English -- before Congress. This is the first time for a Pope to make such an appearance: the Republican Party ( America's only real "religious" political party today) would have greatly preferred John Paul II or Benedetto XVI, but now, it finds itself with a Latin American Jesuit, bearing a profoundly Catholic vision of society, economics and politics, which is difficult to reconcile with the American capitalist and financial system as it stands today. But Francis is also a man of surprises, and has a vision of the church that he feels the need to attract people to, rather than convince them with intellectually. When it comes to religious freedom and abortion, he may have nothing but bad news for the Democrats (at least publicly), even though the Republicans are more concerned by his visit. The recent encyclical "Laudato Si'" has confirmed the "subversive" potential of the establishment under this Pope -- never a communist, but always a politician.
The least problematic scenario (despite the situation in the Middle East) is international, and the U.N.: the Pope's visit to and speech before the United Nations have by now become a consolidated genre over the past half century. But there is a new situation that is completely out of control in Syria and Iraq, with a potential risk to infect other countries as well. The church is experiencing a new era of martyrdom in those areas, one that is much worse than the persecution it experienced during the Roman Empire. American military and political impotence faces Russian action, to which the Vatican is not indifferent, and this is one of the tensions running under the surface of Francis's visit to America. The Pope arrives in New York following diplomatic success in Cuba, but amid uncertainty in other areas of the world (the Middle East, as well as Central Africa).
The third scenario is intra-ecclesiastic; particularly, the speech he will deliver to bishops in Washington and the time he will spend in Philadelphia. This area will have a greater impact than the other two on the concrete life of Catholics in America. For years now the American church has been deeply divided among various theological and political currents, with bishops largely tending toward conservatism while the laity largely leans towards the liberal-progressive. Pope Francis did not create this rift; it dates back to the encyclical on contraception "Humanae Vitae" (1968) and was exacerbated by Popes John Paul II and Benedetto XVI. In addition, American Catholics find it difficult to feel like part of the global Catholic church. Francis is facing a church that is among the most vital and energetic in the world, but also one that is experiencing a state of schism. American bishops are expecting to hear reassuring words from a Pope they generally struggle to understand, but whom a number of them know as the Pope who has declared the end of "culture wars" around sexual issues, in order to return to a broader discourse on all the themes of Christian morality relevant to this century.
Francis's role as "pontiff" will have to be carried out among different cultures, within a church with distinctly pronounced extremes. It is undoubtedly a historical visit. In 1960, John Kennedy was accused of not being fit for presidency because he was Catholic, and therefore subject to the Pope's orders. While Protestants protested at the time, they would willingly take back the "mediocre Catholic" (in his wife Jackie's words) that was Kennedy, in the place of this distinctly Catholic and Latin American Pope.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy and was translated into English.