Opinion: Caught Amid An International Bike Race, the Pope May Find Tricky Terrain in America 

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Days before the international bike race arrives in Richmond, there may be a few other matters to think about while we wait for the competition to begin.

For one thing, Pope Francis just happens to be visiting America from Tuesday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 27. Right in the midst of our global premier bicycling event, when the eyes of the whole world will be on Richmond! What was he thinking?

I hope the nation still might be able to hear at least some of his message over the alternating whirring and jangling of bicycles over cobblestones. But it may help to get a few points out ahead of the messenger.

To note right up front, the pope has taken a strong stand in favor of bicycles — his bike stand, as it were.

At a gathering in July 2013, the pope talked with more than 6,000 seminarians and men and women from 66 nations who were considering the religious life, and he stressed the need for a simple lifestyle. The headline from the British publication Catholic Herald summed up his message: “Avoid fast cars and ride a bike instead, Pope tells trainee priests and nuns.”

So our bike race surely will have the pope’s blessing, as it has brought us to become more bike-friendly in our urban environment.

On his own plate, though, the pope will have difficult spiritual and political issues to deal with, if even one issue is a measure of the rest.

The America on which the pope soon will set foot is a radically changed America, even from a few months ago. On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage is provided for and protected as a right under the 14th Amendment.

The pope has not yet addressed this ruling directly, but the question is sure to come up: Where does he stand on this issue, as it has now been raised in the United States, Ireland and other Catholic bases around the world?

The pope has famously said, “Who am I to judge a gay person of good will who seeks the Lord?” when he was asked about facing up to the homosexual orientation of priests in particular.

“Who am I to judge?” Some American bishops, and in particular the bishops in Virginia, were quick to run in and cast judgments on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Before the day was out on the Supreme Court’s decision, Virginia’s bishops — Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, and Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond — handed down a sweeping condemnation of the Supreme Court and the basis for its decision.

In their dismissive missive, the two bishops said they were “deeply distressed” by this decision because it failed to uphold the union of one man and one woman as the only validly recognized form of marriage. With respect to marriage between one man and one woman, the bishops proclaimed in their joint statement, “This fundamental institution, grounded in natural law, predates any religion or nation.”

Other church officials have weighed in from the same vantage point and with the same dire tone. The head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, called the court’s decision “profoundly immoral and unjust” and a “tragic error.”

Other high-ranking church officials have called for a spirit of calm and a show of respect for the LGBT community. Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago said in a statement, “The rapid social changes signaled by the court ruling call us to mature and serene reflections as we move forward together.”

Picture the pope walking into this moment of charged political and spiritual turmoil in the American church, like Daniel going into the den. What will he say to the lions of his own church?

The pope will face political entanglements outside the doors of the church as well. With our presidential primary races in full swing, Francis will be making Washington the first stop on his U.S. tour. There, on Thursday, Sept. 24, he’ll speak to a joint session of Congress focusing on climate change and promoting a global effort to protect the environment.

This address, and the pope’s talk before the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York the next day, should at least be worth taping and watching later, if for no other reason than that they will make for must-see political theater.

In a May 24 post on Politico.com, Ben Schreckinger looked at the politics ahead of the pope’s visit: “Catholic Republicans are developing a pope problem. … Francis may be popular with the general public, but key Republican primary constituencies — hawks, climate-change skeptics and religious conservatives, including some Catholics — are wary of the pope’s progressivism. Some [pronounce] themselves, ‘Republicans first and Catholics second.’”

Will the Democrats stand and cheer the pope’s message? That will certainly be a matter for political calculation. And we will have to see how the pope emerges from his battle with the lions in this political arena as well.

But now it’s time for the bike race. It’s Richmond’s moment to shine.

I’m sure the pope would be here to cheer us on, if he could. I think he would enjoy just being part of the crowd, one more time. Yes, I think he would enjoy that quite a bit. S

Mike Sarahan is a local writer and Catholic.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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