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Pope Mania!

Pope Francis is the fourth pope to visit the United States. Pope Paul VI was the first to visit, and he addressed the United Nations in 1965. Pope John Paul II came to the United States seven times in three different decades, and was the first pope to be invited to the White House. The last pope to visit, Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, was invited to the White House on his 81st birthday.

Yet never has a papal visit caused the excitement and distraction that Pope Francis did. Nearly 80,000 people cheered, waved flags, and snapped pictures as Francis rode through Central Park in New York City. Earlier in the week, while in Washington, he was greeted by thousands during a parade. In Philadelphia, approximately 860,000 people attended Francis’s September 27 mass held between City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—his last scheduled public event in the U.S. before returning to Rome.

But why all the fanfare? The pope is the leader of the Church, but he is not a world leader. He was dubbed The People’s Pope for living a life of frugality. He chose a normal life in a modest apartment rather than in the official papal apartments that he claimed had room for 300 people. During his U.S. visit he didn’t ride in a luxury BMW but instead a Fiat 500 four-door—Fiat’s least popular model. Although not a former Beatle, mainstream media continually referred to him as a rock star throughout his visit to the Land of the Dollar.

In Washington, he spoke of healing—healing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Francis has been critical of the United States, for its failure to confront climate change, for war, consumerism and, especially, capitalism, even as the Church itself is the largest financial power on the planet, owning billions of shares of Gulf Oil, Shell, General Motors, Bethlehem Steel, General Electric, International Business Machines, and others, along with considerable investments in financial institutions around the globe. Speaking before Congress, Francis implored them to stop their warmonger mentality, and their hatred, bigotry, and unwillingness to help those in need.

Speaking of healing, Francis has spoken of the healing of the Church in the aftermath of a conspiracy to protect priests guilty of child molestation, which angers a lot of people.

So why did so many people in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia clamor to get a glimpse of Pope Francis? Surely it wasn’t for his blessing—not in a country that separates state from religion, that bans bibles from schools and workplace.

Was it simply an effort to experience a brush with fame? Or was it because he is going against tradition, becoming more liberal in his views on divorce and gay marriage?

The Vatican has had great influence on the U.S. in the past, and while little change is likely before the next presidential election, change is in the wind. What direction that change will take remains to be seen.

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