Q&A on Pope Francis visit to the U.S.

Robert E. Pontbriand looks at historical nature of the Pope’s visit, the significance of his address to Congress, and what impact could the celebrity of Pope Francis have moving forward.

Robert Pontbriand

This week Pope Francis Francis began his visit to the United States with planned stops Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. Having visited the White House yesterday and his address to Congress today, the Pope’s celebrity status is only growing. UMass Dartmouth History Professor and Director of Religious Studies Dr. Robert E. Pontbriand looks at historical nature of the Pope’s visit, the significance of his address to Congress, and what impact could the celebrity of Pope Francis have moving forward.

Looking back historically, how does Pope Francis' visit to the White House compare to past visits by pontiffs to the White House?

RP: Pope Francis' visit to the White House, as with any such Papal visit, is historic and differs this time around in the casual cheerfulness that Pope Francis always exhibits. Pope Benedict XVI did not have this kind of charisma. In contrast, Pope John Paul II was lauded as a "Superstar" in the popular media - he set the standard for the modern papacy in this regard, at least. Pope Francis' amiability has been on display since the moment he stepped off the plane and met with the President and First Lady. But, having said that, the venue of the White House demands a certain formality and scripted presentation - this is a Pope who feels more comfortable being at ease and presenting himself humbly.

The larger question concerns the multi day visit of Pope Francis to the United States and the message he brings to us as a nation. His recent encyclical, Laudato Si, has rightfully been studied by Vatican watchers, politicians, "policy wonks" and others because when a Pope speaks in such a way it has universal importance if only for the fact that he represents a billion Catholics worldwide. And, this Pope wants to make a difference in the world. He intended to use his office to promote concrete policy changes on issues such as climate change and economic justice. He believes in the power of righteous ideas.

How significant is his address to Congress?

RP: Given the high level of attention this pope has received in the international media I expect his address to the U.S. Congress will symbolize but also signify a sea change in the direction of economic and social activity It will be historic in the more profound sense. I don't believe he intendeds to appease certain political constituencies. Pope Francis does not regard political, economic or social justice issues to be autonomous fields of activity but regards them all as part of a "seamless garment" ( a nod to former Cardinal Bernardin's ethical phraseology ). Human and ecological values are a package deal for him. The trend is in this direction and his voice gives it greater force. 

What do you contribute most to his celebrity status? What type of impact could this have moving forward?

RP: His personality is merely one component of his celebrity status. The message he conveys is the other. He is controversial, too. There are issues like the sexual abuse scandal which the Church under his leadership has still to contend. This will not easily go away and will challenge the character of his papacy. And, he is not a modernist in many respects. He is a reformist pope, as we are seeing in the changes he is making happen in the institutions of the Vatican. Yet, he is not a revolutionary pope. Doctrinally, he will hold a steady course.

Pope Francis

Climate change appears to be an issue the Pope remains focused on addressing following his papal encyclical in June. What other major policy issues do you think he will advocate on behalf of and call attention to?

RP: The encyclical was not exclusively about the climate change issue although this part of it received the greatest attention in the mainstream media. Human rights, economic and social justice issues are going to be a main focus for him. He has made this abundantly clear already.

About Robert Pontbriad

Dr. Robert E. Pontbriand is a professor of history and is the Director of Religious Studies at UMass Dartmouth. His scholarship has focused on Modern Europe, Intellectual History, Western Civilization, and France. The Religious Studies program at UMass Dartmouth educates students in the scholarly interpretation of religion while cultivating an understanding and respect for religious diversity and secular perspectives.

College of Arts and Sciences