It was a tale of two distinguished travelers who crossed the world at the same time for distinctly different reasons and received distinctly different greetings.
The White House rolled out a veritable but all too official red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit, even if, outside diplomatic circles, news of his arrival mostly elicited quizzical looks. And why not? Xi is not exactly considered a man of the people — even back in Beijing — and he didn’t fly 6,921 miles to shake American citizens’ hands and kiss their babies.
Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, on the other hand, consisted of the obligatory photo op with President Barack Obama and his family but quickly morphed into a six-day zigzag on the northeast corridor from Washington to New York and back to Philadelphia, where he made certain to meet with everyone from beleaguered migrants to prison inmates.
Yes, Xi literally got a 21-gun salute in the nation’s capital, but it was the pontiff who got to bask in all the airtime he wanted and more accolades than he likely expected. Pope Francis’ every move was broadcast in real time.
His speech to Congress may have been given in halting, not always clear English, but the passion of his words and delivery nonetheless moved soon-to-be-former-House Speaker John Boehner to tears. Then there was the pope’s encounter during his procession in D.C. with a young girl who came with a cleverly constructed message asking him to support immigration reform.
And few are likely to ever forget the moment in Philadelphia when the pope touched down on the tarmac, greeted the well-wishing throng and headed for his waiting car, only to turn back upon spotting a boy in a wheelchair. The image of the pope kissing the forehead of 10-year-old Michael Keating, whose father, Chuck, was conducting a high school band welcoming His Holiness, became an instant viral sensation.
By contrast, the militaristic tone arranged for Xi turned out to be a good bit of sound and fury that signified, well, very little. Yes, he would later call his stay in Washington “unforgettable,” but few Americans seemed to care that he had come and gone. And even the state dinner in his honor garnered little interest compared to the sincere queries about where one could get a “Popemoji” sign or learn the significance of the varied papal vestiments.
And yet Xi’s time on this side of the Atlantic was not the type of cookie-cutter ceremonial affair in which business of import is discussed but little is ultimately enacted. In fact, he announced a wide-ranging, indeed history-making, plan to curb climate emissions – rather a big deal for the leader of the nation that is the number one emitter of carbon dioxide.
In addition, he and Obama issued a joint statement explaining that they had reached a “common understanding” on cyber espionage, a hot-button issue punctuated by allegations that hackers from China had benefited from the pilfering of U.S. trade secrets.
But this was all relegated to the background as the wildly popular Pope Francis blessed, waved and kissed his way through the multitudes that applauded his every step. He spoke of the yawning need for cooperation between nations and people of different faiths. He pleaded for immigration reform and for greater acceptance of refugees. He also warned Millennials, in particular, that the people they think they know through Facebook and other social media are not really their friends.
The pope’s unbound popularity, particularly when compared to that of his predecessor, is undeniable. And a trip like the one that concluded Sunday in Philadelphia, where the pope led his final Mass in the U.S., would be considered historic on its own merit. But the fact that he spoke about things that are on the minds of many Americans right now earned him even more applause and plaudits.
The agreements championed by Xi, meanwhile, have longer-term implications. The emissions proposal will take effect at the end of 2017, and Obama made it clear that, while he welcomed Xi’s cooperation, the U.S. plans to keep a wary eye on things, with sanctions at the ready if the deal is not adhered to.
Xi was in New York Sunday evening, attending a United Nations summit on the rights of women, and promised that China would donate billions to fight poverty and gender discrimination. But even that bit of potentially life-altering news drew virtual crickets in a trip that saw Xi largely shut out of the limelight.
Coincidentally, however, Francis’ stance on women’s rights in the Catholic Church was one of two primary causes of the little criticism he may have heard over the last week.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a professor of theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary, noted in a blog for The Huffington Post that the pope made a special point of complimenting Catholic women while addressing “a packed cathedral of about 1,600 people” in Philadelphia. He cited the need to appreciate these “women, lay and religious,” for the contributions they “have made and continue to make to the life of our communities.”
And yet, Rev. Thistlethwaite wrote, even while claiming to agree that “women should have a greater role in church leadership, he rejects the idea of ordaining women” as priests and “now maintains that the ordination of women is not permitted due to Jesus’ practice of only choosing men to be apostles.”
What he will not say, the reverend charges, is that “the ‘otherness’ of women to the essence of humanity has deep roots in the philosophical theology that informs Catholicism.”
Enraged victims of sexual abuse at the hands of representatives of the church also had harsh words for the pontiff. Last Wednesday in Washington, he praised American Catholic bishops for their “generous commitment to bring healing to victims” of pedophile priests. That drew some sharp and immediate rebuke.
Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, released a statement “decrying the years of clergy abuse that the church tolerated,” according to a Huffington Post article. She said the pope’s support of the bishops “revealed his own reluctance to take decisive action” on this incendiary issue.
“His remarks,” she said, “confirm what we’ve long said and suspected: this pope, like his predecessors, is doing and will do little if anything to bring real reform to this continuing crisis. Those who care about kids must focus on secular authorities, not church figures (however popular they may be).”
But these were truly the only road bumps in an otherwise smooth journey for Pope Francis, who would exit the U.S. on Sunday evening much the way he entered it – to cheers, tears, bowed heads and countless murmured prayers.
Perhaps before he flew back to Rome he managed to snag one of those Pope Francis rookie cards that the Phillies gave their fans the week before his arrival. It bears a picture of him waving and smiling benevolently, exactly how most of his flock will remember his historic few days in the United States of America.