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Pope Strikes A Chord With Catholics And Non-Catholics Alike


Safe to say Pope Francis got superstar treatment in the United States from Catholics and non-Catholics. Now that he's back at the Vatican, it seems worth asking what, if any, impact his U.S. visit will have going forward. Will his personal popularity help him take on issues that concern him? And what is his leadership mean for the U.S. Catholic Church going ahead? Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: A survey last month found that most Americans didn't know the pope was coming for a visit. But over the last week, it's been hard to miss him in the wild crowds that greeted him, from his first stop in Washington to the last one here in Philadelphia, where hundreds of thousands showed up.

It was hard not to be touched by this humble man, a pope of the people, speaking softly and blessing those most in need. His simple message resonated even where partisanship reigns, like in the halls of Congress.


POPE FRANCIS: Let us remember the golden rule - do unto others as you...


GJELTEN: He couldn't even get all the words out before the applause stopped him.

With anyone else reciting the golden rule in Congress, it might ring hollow. But from Pope Francis, that line got the most applause of all. In words and actions this past week, the pope always brought attention back to what he calls the periphery - the edge of society. He ate lunch with homeless people in Washington and visited with schoolchildren in East Harlem and with immigrants here in Philadelphia, saying it should make no difference whether they came legally or not.

DANNEYRA: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: Danneyra came here from Mexico with her husband 10 years ago. She's undocumented, so she doesn't give her last name. "We go through difficult times," she says. "When the pope talks about us, it's a great thing. Following him is like following a light."

The pope's advocacy for immigrant rights took him into U.S. political territory, but he did not hesitate. Issues related directly to the Catholic Church itself are more challenging. The pope met yesterday with survivors of sexual abuse by priests. He said afterward that such sins cannot be kept secret any longer, and he promised that anyone responsible would be held accountable. But advocates for the abuse victims weren't satisfied. Also challenging are those issues that involve church doctrine. There are limits to what even a pope can do about the definition of marriage and family.


FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: In a meeting yesterday with bishops, Francis said it was impossible not to see the unprecedented changes in society - changes that have social and cultural of effects on family bonds.


FRANCIS: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: "Unfortunately, legal effects as well," he said. That seemed like a criticism of the Supreme Court's approval of same-sex marriage. Progressives might not like that, but it would take a huge effort by Francis to change Catholic teachings on marriage, and he would face resistance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello. Sign the petition of Pope Francis in defense of traditional marriage between one man and one woman.

GJELTEN: At the scene of the pope's mass here yesterday, people were collecting signatures against same-sex marriage with some success.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Will you sign - to defend the family? All right.

GJELTEN: The next big event on the pope's schedule is at the Vatican - the global bishops' meeting next month on family life. Inspiring words about the need to protect the environment or serve the poor will only go so far. The pope will be dealing with issues that divide the Catholic community worldwide, and they won't be easy to resolve. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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