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Pope Francis' political style on display: humble gestures, not fiery rhetoric

On Friday, Pope Francis spoke at the United Nations and led an interfaith service at Ground Zero in New York, before meeting with schoolchildren in Harlem.

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    Pope Francis reaches out to 5th grader Omodele Ojo of the Brooklyn borough of New York as he is greeted by children upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. The pope is on a five-day trip to the USA, which includes stops in Washington D.C., New York, and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba.
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Within the often stormy centers of secular power, Pope Francis has brought a quiet and even deferential moral authority to bitter political divides.

It is in many ways a moral authority rooted as much in personal gestures and his deeply humble lifestyle as it is in the historic teachings of the Catholic Church. He has washed the feet of those in prison, embraced the disfigured, and opted for a simple four-door Fiat to get around this week – actions of humility that have resonated around the world.

“I think he’s got really good political instincts, especially in his instinct not to be overtly political,” says Terrence Tilley, professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University in New York. “That almost sounds like a paradox, but it’s a kind of a style that keeps him involved with the people, without regard to all the trappings of his office.”

Yet in the spirit of Jesus’ words to his disciples, perhaps – “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” – the “pope of the periphery” has also wielded his papal power this week with remarkable subtlety and shrewdness.

When he arrived in the United States on Tuesday, Francis immediately waded into two of the most divisive political issues in the country: immigration and climate change. “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he told President Obama during the welcome ceremony Wednesday on the South Lawn.

And the pope then praised the president for his proposals to combat air pollution. “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. “When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

Yet the author of “Laudato Si,” the controversial papal encyclical on climate change, later that day made an unplanned stop at the convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a “brief but symbolic visit,” the Vatican said, showing support to the nuns suing the president over Obamacare’s birth control provision, which they say violates their religious freedom.

“He’s an equal opportunity disturber in that, when we listen to some things we smile, as we listen to other things he says we bristle,” New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan said last week. “But Jesus was like that, remember?”

During his stop in Cuba, too, the pope navigated his quiet moral authority with a number of subtle gestures. And while many criticized the pontiff for not meeting with dissidents or forcefully speaking out for greater human rights from the Castro regime, others saw the pope sending clear messages, not only in his homilies, but again in the places he chose to visit.

“Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people,” Francis told a throng of thousands during last Sunday’s mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, which includes a looming iron sculpture of Che Guevara, the famous Argentine Marxist revolutionary.

And he later visited a group of students at the Felix Varela Institute, named for the 19th century advocate for Cuban independence – a Catholic priest still considered a hero in Castro’s Cuba. The Catholic Church offers workshops on business and economics here, and Francis’ visit served to bolster the slow-moving economic reforms in the communist country.

And with the same spirit of reconciliation, compassion, and pastoral service that has defined his papacy for the past 2-1/2 years, Francis invoked symbols of Cuba’s heritage, telling the students here, "We need to know who we are and where we came from.... The world needs young people who will journey together in building a country like that which [poet] José Martí dreamed of, 'With all, and for the good of all.' "

“Above all, Pope Francis came across as an agent of reconciliation,” says R. Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and an expert on religion in Latin America. “And we saw him invoke the two great symbols that unify all Cubans of whatever political stripes, whether they’re in Miami or on the island itself, and that’s José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, and The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre.”

Yet even at the shrine in El Cobre, Francis spoke of a “revolution of tenderness,” a subtle reinterpretation of one of Cuba’s national themes.   

And just as he had in Cuba, Francis invoked American heritage as he spoke before a joint session of Congress on Thursday, the first pope to do so. Using four Americans – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton – the pope urged divided lawmakers “to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.”

Though he returned again to his main themes of immigration and climate change during the address, he remained circumspect, clothing his forays into politics as gentle moral exhortations. Even when he called for the “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage,” he didn’t enter the divisive politics of abortion, but pivoted instead to the need to end the death penalty.

On Friday, after addressing leaders at the United Nations, the first Latin American pope will bring the his entourage to East Harlem, visiting a group of third- and fourth-graders, children of poor immigrants, many of them, at Our Lady Queen of Angels School. And next week he will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

“He’s been more attentive to the symbolism of the papacy in these regards,” says John Sniegocki, professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. “A simple lifestyle, a simple papacy resonates with people and gives more impact to his broader words and broader critiques of global systems.”

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