An estimated 1.5 million people are expected to join Pope Francis on September 27 for a celebration of the Mass at the culmination of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The massive gathering, plus the pope’s participation in the Festival of Families the day before, which is expected to draw close to 750,000 people, has led to the coining of the term “Popeapocalypse”.
Universities are closing, pilgrims are staking sleeping plots in the Philadelphia Zoo, the mass transit system is holding a lottery for train tickets and women expecting to give birth in the area are looking at traveling to other cities — all in anticipation of Pope Francis’s visit.
There is no other religious, entertainment or political leader alive today who could garner anywhere near the kind of response inspired by the pope — a fact that leaves some people scratching their heads and wondering: why?
He’s A Transnational Political Leader
As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope occupies a position that no other religious leader can match. Most major religions do not have a hierarchical structure that clearly acknowledges one leader who embodies the tradition like the pope does for Catholicism. The pope is the head of a cohesive, transnational organization that has been in existence for close to two thousand years. The church has a chain of command from the Vatican all the way to the local parish that is capable of transmitting information, ideology and material goods throughout the world.
The influence of the Catholic Church is augmented by the status of the Vatican as an independent city-state that maintains diplomatic relations with countries around the world. As the leader of the Vatican, when the pope visits a country, it’s not just as a religious leader, it is as a head of state.
He Has International Religous Influence
Papal pronouncements hold serious weight and the pope has great influence on how Catholics understand what is holy — for instance he plays the central role in the process of declaring saints and shrines. The pope also is the highest representation of the Catholic Church to other faith traditions, whether to other religions, other Christian denominations or the secular world.
Given the immense power of the position it is clear that any pope is going to matter. However, when the role is held by such captivating figure as Pope Francis, the pope matters a lot.
From the moment the newly elected pope faced the crowds in St. Peter’s Square and his chosen name was announced — Francis — the spirit of possibility began to blow through the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Francis’s Particular Papacy
Within his first year the new pope observed Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of young inmates, including women and Muslims, said that atheists could be redeemed, opined that the church had been emphasizing gay marriage and abortion too much, accused the bureaucracy of having “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, stated that global financial markets are “tyrannizing the poor” and, of course, his now iconic response about a gay people: “Who am I to judge?”
The pope makes for good headlines but his priorities reverberate within world politics and within societies around the world.
Pope Francis has been credited with helping to broker the rapprochement between the US and Cuba, the country where he will be visiting directly before his arrival in the U.S.
In the United States, Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge” line was referenced by a Catholic State Senator in Illinois who cast the deciding vote in favor of gay marriage in 2013, before the Supreme Court made that it the law of the land.
Francis will be the first pope to address the U.S. Congress, which will be sure to pose challenges to political figures on both sides of the aisle. It seems likely that the pope’s visit and his words will be referenced within the US presidential primaries and general election.