Of course, everything is bigger, bolder and louder in New York than in other American cities, but even discounting that caveat, it’s clear that the public’s reaction to the presence of Pope Francis has little to do with religion and much to do with the sense of danger that emanates from every radio, television and news-paper, danger which is only heightened by the current presidential debates that reveal a shocking lack of knowledge about the world the United States feels entitled to lead.
Fear pervades the modern world: fear of war, climate change, terrorism - and even death by natural causes. Neither the glitz and glimmer of entertainment and advertising nor the wonders of medical science can assuage those fears, which are constantly reinforced by the media. It is said of Pope Francis that his stunning appeal lies in the genuine quality of his warmth, his spontaneity and disdain of formality, as evidenced by the embrace with Cardinal Dolan in St. Patrick’s Cathedral - that of two old friends.
The Pope’s charisma is experienced as a life-saver, a desperate haven from the terrors of the modern world, the suggestion that perhaps we are not doomed, that we can step back from the brink. From the abyss we face on all sides: whether it is the threat of a nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine; the ravage of Syria, or the flood of refugees - hundreds of thousands - into Europe. Suddenly, that little peninsula whose inhabitants never cease to haggle amongst themselves about perceived slights and injustices, is no longer a place to which tourists flock, but is struggling to welcome the wretched of the earth, heretofore seen only on the nightly news.
The word that most easily comes to mind with respect to the American public’s attitude toward Francis is ‘irrational’: as if the Pope’s deliberately modest car - a Fiat 500 - were a white horse, arriving just in the nick of time come save us from a dire fate.
Francismania is not about religion, but it is about the same desperate, irrational hope that religion raises. It is no doubt too much to hope that a sentiment felt round the world would inspire leaders to come together for the common good. The only other possibility is that individuals may be inspired to come together, acting in their place.