Can pope bridge gap between America and Rome?
March 15th, 2013
05:09 PM ET

Can pope bridge gap between America and Rome?

By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. The views expressed are her own.

Conventional wisdom was that a short papal conclave would result in the election of a front runner. So when I heard that there was white smoke after just five ballots, I prepared for a TV interview by reviewing notes about Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan. Not visible on camera was a thick packet on my lap containing profiles of other candidates, just in case. Luckily, I had it arranged in alphabetical order, and quickly laid my hands on the rather slender file of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

In Catholic circles, it is relatively rare to witness events without precedent. And yet we have seen so many of them in the space of a month. Close on the heels of Benedict's resignation came the election of an unexpected successor, who, it turns out, had a few more surprises in store for the faithful. In his first public moments as pope, Bergoglio engaged in a little self-deprecating humor, led the people in three of the most unifying prayers of the church, requested a blessing and humbly bowed before them. The most astonishing thing of all was his new name. Bergoglio became the first pontiff in history to adopt as his patron a beloved saint who may be best remembered for his love of animals and the simple life, but who was above all a reformer who called on a flawed institution to repair itself.

U.S. Catholics can be certain of this: Papa Francesco will make no abrupt reversals, least of all on issues over which they find themselves most disconnected from church teaching. But during a time when so many of them are clamoring for change, they are likely to be encouraged by any break with precedent at the highest levels of church leadership. In particular, the elevation of an Argentinian to the papacy represents a monumental shift in the church's center of gravity that should resonate with Catholics throughout the Western hemisphere.  I happened to be with a group of third graders at a Catholic parochial school when the white smoke appeared. Many of them were captivated by the possibility of an "American" pope – by which they meant a person from the United States. As I expected, there are still no stars and stripes in the vicinity of the Sistine Chapel.

More from CNN: Pope Francis' complicated past

But Francis is nevertheless an American pope, and my young Catholic friends will grow up in a nation that increasingly understands itself as part of one America, in which economic realities and human migration render national borders less relevant.

Bergoglio's style may signify an even more meaningful departure from longstanding tradition. By now, everyone knows that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires eschewed many of the privileges that come with being a prince of the Church. And if the first day of his pontificate are any guide, he plans to continue doing so, at least to the extent it is possible. My Facebook feed yesterday was full of gleeful pictures and posts: Pope Francis rode the bus with the cardinals! He refused the papal limo on his trip to Santa Maria Maggiore! He paid his own hotel bill! At a time when clerical privilege is widely viewed as, at best, a vestige of a spirituality that no longer holds, and, at worst, justification for sheltering criminals, any sign of resistance to it at the Vatican will be most welcome.

Catholics in the United States have always grappled with the tension that comes from living in a culture that adapts readily and rapidly, and being faithful to a church that changes only slowly and with great caution. The chasm between Rome and America may seem especially wide at this historical juncture, and how effective Papa Francesco will be in bridging it remains to be seen. What is certain is that the tone of the first 24 hours of the new pope would have been markedly less optimistic had a Vatican insider stepped out on that balcony.

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Topics: Latin America • Religion

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    Can this Pope bridge the gap between America and Rome? A more important question would be, will the Pope denounce once and for all, the use of those ungodly drones and Apache helicopters to slaughter people like cattle in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen? And will he also denounce the aggressive wars that we're currently engaged in? He should as these have already been outlawed at the U.N. but disregarded in 2003 by both George Bush and Tony Blair when they invaded Iraq!

    March 15, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • Kerry

      Well said, Quigley. In fact, you're the only one on this web page who said anything at all. Why is that?

      March 16, 2013 at 11:56 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        @Quigley & Kerry, haven't you heard popes preach? They all urge for peace. But they don't want to get into politics. Not since the end of World War II. Honestly you wouldn't want to have theocrats and religious fanatics. Haven't you seen enough of them in the Middle East already?
        Yes, Pope Francis will be a bridge-builder and he gives the impression of determination. His background and personality will be his assets in dealing with the cardinals inside the Church as well as faithful and critics in the outside world.

        March 18, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • Mr Vic

      Tell you what, you be our ambassador and head over there and negotiate a cease fire. Maybe when they're have your head half way lopped off you'll realize it's better kill them before they find the means to do to the same. It sucks, but that's reality.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
    • No way

      Nothing short of denouncing being catholic, the US church is doomed.

      March 16, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Reply
      • guillermo Perez

        The gates of Hell will never prevail agains the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

        March 16, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  2. James

    I don't care what the Pope does. It's a matter for Catholics. Who else cares?

    March 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
    • Roberto

      You do not sound as James, but as "Korean Gangnam". We in Europe want America be run from Americans, and not imported "Korean-inteligence-officials". There is no gap between USA and EU, but there are big gaps between USA-EU and North and South Korea.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:00 am | Reply
      • James

        I've no idea what you're talking about, Roberto

        March 16, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • John Baker

      It matters greatly James, because the Catholic church in the U.S. and elsewhere has inserted itself into the public square. It's not enough for the church hierarchy to tell it's own adherents what to do, they want to tell everyone else what to do as well. They want all of us to live by their rules. I for one am deeply offended by that.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  3. 100 % ETHIO

    Culturally, I do not see a gap between America and Rome.

    America is a collection plus of all Human races around the Globe.
    In addition, from wherever we all brought any Religion and Culture, we are free to exercise it in America. Many thanks for those Christians (Great Britain heroes) who challenged all the past hardships and welcoming us by opening the bright door of America.

    Remember, America is established only by Christians.

    Just curious. If I am wrong, let Almighty GOD forgive me.
    I tried to get the extended family trees of the current Argentina born, His Holiness Pope Francis. I did not get it, that much.

    However, just by observing his facial expressions and structures, he seems Jewish descendant. I figured out by matching his Ears, Nose, Chicks and his focus.

    I need CNN and the audiences to respond.

    As we know, the World we are living is changed.

    March 15, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Reply
    • Jim Bob Jones

      If American priests would quit subverting the church and start teaching what is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we wouldn't have a gap to bridge. How about teaching what the Church actually states is truth?

      March 16, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
    • boomachook

      100% ETHIO – you're absolutely right – the world is changing, unfortunately the Catholic Church is not, which will ultimately be the catalyst for its demise....

      March 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  4. Brian Smith

    IIsrael deposed the vatican decades ago.

    March 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  5. marduk

    Not everyone likes religion being forced upon them, which is the case here. The Amereican media, is telling the populus that this guy (pope) is important to you. This is compltete violotion of religious freedom when the political leaders and media alike force this guy upon us. Sorry, but there is a seperation of "church and state" and my/our religious freedon is being violated. All the recent events(including the selection of the pope) relate to masonic numbers...such as number 13...and 3..and 7, and 6. Weird coinicidence !

    March 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • Ron

      No one is forcing this on you. All you have to do is refuse to read the articles or watch the news about this particular topic. I don't like and am not interested in lots of stories in the media. That doesn't mean my rights are being abridged. I just don't read them.

      March 16, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
    • sam

      What are you ranting about? Masonic numbers? Where did that come in? If you feel your religious freedom is violated by this (or any news article), the solution's simple....don't read it.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  6. Penny Wright

    The 3 great evils in the world are Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Republican Party.

    March 16, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Reply
    • Ray B

      Penny.....if u had said Islam, secularism, and the Democratic party, I'd have wholeheartedly agreed with you.

      March 16, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Reply
    • vvi3

      you left communism the biggest evil in the world

      March 17, 2013 at 12:18 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Now yours is the most idiotic comment I've seen here yet, vvi3! In fact, if being stupid were to be a virtue, you'd be a living saint!

        March 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  7. Nick

    Short answer is no. Unless Francis decides to change the traditional stances on gay marriage,condom use and woman priests. There is no middle ground the church needs to modify itself for the times.

    March 16, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Reply
    • Jim Bob Jones

      No. The Church will not change what it teaches. American Catholics need to decide whether they want to believe what the Church teaches and go along with it, continue to be mad and fight it or just join another church. The Roman Catholic Church will not budge on the social issues and both Catholics and non-Catholics need to understand this.

      March 16, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Reply
      • Ray B

        Well said Jim Bob.....what American catholics (some, not all) fail to understand is that it is WE who need to adjust our ways and behaviors to abide by God.....not the other way around.

        March 16, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
      • dgatwood

        Ah, but the Catholic Church has changed in many ways over the centuries. Any belief, if it be truly God's will, will endure, and any belief that is the result of the flaws of men will eventually fade. However, you must take care not to be too quick to interpret the absence of change as evidence of the justness of the status quo; to the extent that false beliefs do not fade, it often more a sad testament to the hardness of human hearts than evidence of God's will. Only time can truly answer such questions with absolute certainty.

        March 17, 2013 at 3:52 am |
  8. Ralph

    Since we live in a world of limited resources, how can we continue to survive without limiting population growth? Ah I guess it will be self limiting at some point thru starvation. Do we really want to go there. Abstinence does not work, all sane people know that. Doesn't it make more sense to keep the sperm and ovum from getting together than to have children, and ultimately the entire population hungry and starving?

    March 16, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Reply
    • Al

      Sir, if you think there are too many people in the world, why don't you get off! You folks just don't seem to understand that the church does not dictate how anyone should or should not live their lives. The catholic church has for years assumed that role but not followed teaching from the Holy Scriptures. I wouldn't listen to anyone who teaches anything contrary to the Word of God. I was raised in the catholic church and like many commenting on this here, became "lost" in the direction the catholics were leading me. I found God, not in any church, but in the Bible. I challenge any catholic, or anyone, to start reading the bible for answers. You'll find words or wisdom you've never heard from any catholic priest.

      March 17, 2013 at 2:25 am | Reply
  9. TC

    Article is ridiculous. There is no gap to bridge. Always interesting to se these "journalists" who compare the church and popes to countries and politicians.

    March 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Reply
    • Courtney

      Actually the Pope is a transnational figure who has a lot of power with the masses.

      He won't "reach" the masses though by watering down the words and teaching of Christ.
      He will reach the masses through solid exegesis of Scripture.

      The thing about a secular society at any time in history is that eventually man's solutions can feed its hungry heart.
      "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after God" spoke Christ.
      My bet is that we are at a pivotal point in that "the muck" and the "malaise" in western "civilization" may cause a number of people to listen to not simply this man, i.e., the new Pope, but to God.

      You may not, others may not, but many will.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  10. Rider of the Pale Horse

    Catholics, your souls will be erased forever if you do not learn how to repent correctly.

    Read what Jesus said and answer the question after:
    Or what woman, if she had ten drachma coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn't light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.' Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting."

    Where did Jesus say pray a Rosary, an Our Father, or a Hail Mary?

    March 16, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • Jim Bob Jones

      Not everything Jesus wants us to do is explicitly stated in scripture.

      The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it much more eloquently than I:

      1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.[62] Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
      1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him."[63] The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of "him who strengthens" us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ . . . in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth "fruits that befit repentance." These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father.[64]

      March 16, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • sam


      I might be wrong, but in Matthew, 6:9 Jesus said, "“This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven..."

      Just sayin'....

      March 17, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  11. Non-Cathlic

    The Romans are the ones who killed Christ. Why would any sane person worship the same church that killed its leader? If your mom or dad got murdered, would you worship their believes? I didnt think so.

    March 16, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • Courtney

      I'm not Catholic, but to address your concerns, Jesus Christ was supposed to die. Good that statement and find out what I mean. The prophets of ancient Israel wrote of one who would be wounded and die for the griefs and sins of mankind.

      Also, you can't equate a government decision by 1 Roman leader with all Romans.

      March 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Reply
    • sam

      Really? You think the Romans who crucified Christ were "Roman Catholics"? C'mon man......

      March 16, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  12. Erick

    When all the adulterers get arrested at the masses, then he bridged the gap.

    March 16, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  13. brian

    Does anyone really care if he bridges the gap? He will probably get tired of the scandals and resign as the previous pope did.

    March 16, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  14. guest

    The best thing for pope to do is to announce that Christianity (and any other religion) is just a myth, tell the believers not to waste time, money and energy with that nonsense and to abolish the church. That would be the first and only time that a pope did something useful.

    March 16, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Reply
    • sam

      Yes, you sound like an expert in these sorts of things....

      March 16, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Reply
      • guest

        After reading your comment I now realize that I was completely wrong. I have just decided to (a) base my life on the beliefs of Bronze age tribes despite the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for any of that and, of course, (b) to give the church a part of my salary. Thank you for opening my eyes.

        March 17, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  15. Annie

    Seems simple – as was Jesus – either believe and practice (join the club) or not. That some decide to follow does not make them sinners – they have a right to their beliefs – as we all do – if you do not think the Catholic teachings are relevant – then tune it out. That people condem this religion because their beliefs do not mimic their own – only reinforces a simple saying – let he without sin cast the first stone.

    March 17, 2013 at 12:04 am | Reply
  16. Meki60

    the bigger Q is can he bridge the muslim christian gap ( and guess where Obama is on this)

    March 17, 2013 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • Annie

      Pope Francis is a Jesuit – in terms of intellect, he has the left and the right beat hands down – he understands the logic and art of compromise.

      March 17, 2013 at 12:33 am | Reply
  17. Meki60

    if Arafat was still around, Obama would want to suck his, well you know.

    March 17, 2013 at 12:30 am | Reply
  18. bankrupt1

    you know how some people hate change? the catholic church has a patent on that thing.

    March 17, 2013 at 1:05 am | Reply
  19. Joseph McCarthy

    One thing the Pope needs to change and that is, it's stand against Euthanasia. No one should be forced to live in a constant state of misery due to some terminal illness or a debilitating stroke due to some outlandish belief or law. People should be given the choice whether to tough it out or die with dignity and not the government or some right-wing minority group.

    March 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  20. rashed

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    Some died in Turkey in the past days. More died in my part of Europe because of some really bad floods in the past
    week. On monday I have witnessed a horrible car accident where some old woman died in front of me.
    You know what's the good part? There are more than 7 BILLION human beings still alive on this earth.

    July 31, 2013 at 6:18 am | Reply
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    August 1, 2013 at 2:29 am | Reply
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