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Pope Francis Meets America

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The following is an excerpt of the Oct. 5 issue TIME cover story. To subscribe to TIME, click here.

You could call America the love child of faith and power. Never happily married, church and state for centuries flexed their muscles, fought their wars, until the Founding Fathers made peace: the Creator endowed inalienable rights, the constitution would guard them. And America grew rich and mighty, welcoming people of all faiths, favoring none, and hosting a 240-year workshop on the role of God in public life.

That genealogy felt especially relevant during Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States. Having called out the world’s superpower more than once for the sins of hubris and materialism, Francis presented himself as pastor more than righteous prophet. He got so busy taking selfies with school children on his first morning in Washington that he was 20 minutes late to the White House. There, the easy smile that lit his broad features among the children dissolved into a look of distant contemplation‹as if to say that the Almighty does not make political endorsements. When the Pope closed his remarks with the words, “God bless America,” it was a prayer, not a boast.

He came as a shepherd and was everywhere tending his flock, with the human touch that has enthralled even skeptics with little use for the larger church. He knows the art of an image: when he touched down in Washington, he left the tarmac in a small black Fiat, dwarfed among the ominous SUVs of the President’s motorcade. But the Pope is not Mother Teresa. He is tough, still sturdy at 78, intensely focused on making the most of his allotted time. He is also a shrewd politician; his early
shuffling of the cutthroat ranks of the Curia are proof enough of that; he has kept the old guard of the Vatican guessing and off balance while quietly installing a vanguard of his own.

So it was especially timely that he should have landed on these shores just as America was working through a few of its regular eruptions of confusion and conflict on the borderlands of faith and politics. There is Kim Davis in Kentucky refusing to issue marriage certificates to same sex couples; here is Ben Carson rejecting the idea of a Muslim president; John Boehner is trying to forestall a government shutdown over funding of Planned Parenthood.

Mahatma Gandhi said that those who believe that religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either. They’ve forever been connected in this country; in that sense, the Pope was right at home as he balanced his spiritually driven, politically explosive agenda about the poor and global climate change alongside the leaders of the country, and the world. It was a bracing demonstration of the strengths and limits of moral leadership in the modern age.

For the TIME’s complete coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to America, click here.

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