Despite being discovered by an Italian, home to 30 million Mexicans and a major importer of Guinness, Catholicism tends to get overshadowed in the United States.
When it comes to American Christianity, the loud and proud evangelical protestant movement dominates, with a political influence that perhaps exceeds any other cultural group and a visible presence from shopping malls to primetime TV.
That’s why it was a little surprising – if eye opening – to witness first-hand the gushing reception given to Pope Francis in his monumental visit to the US this week.
From the moment the Pontiff descended from his private jet into his frugal and much-documented black Fiat, hundreds of thousands of Americans lined the streets to catch a glimpse, vigorously waving Vatican flags and excitably weeping like ‘60s teenagers at a Beatles gig.
Many of the well-wishers were Catholics, and therefore warmly welcoming their spiritual leader makes complete sense. But many more were not, meaning some other motivation underlay the Francis fever.
Partly the response may say something about America’s love of fame and pageantry. The ultimate celebrity, the Pope enjoys an almost mythical aura, with many non-believers taking to the streets out of curiosity and the chance to bask in the glow of one of the world’s most famous people.
Like Australia, the US suffers from the distinctly New World phenomenon of ‘ironic idolatry’.
On the one hand, both nations are among the most egalitarian on the planet, where tall poppies are to be cut down and power should reside always with the everyman (at least in theory).
But faced with Popes and Monarchs we tend to go wobbly at the knees, with a red-faced and insecure fealty at odds with our anti-authoritarian and independent streak.
How many Aussie republicans have found themselves feeling emotionally affected during a Westminster Abbey TV spectacle or their cheeks becoming alarmingly wet and salty with tears observing a magazine spread about Kate Middleton and her munchkins?
This is the same paradox I believe many non-Catholic Americans encountered in the past week: an awestruck wonder in the presence of an institution a millennium older than the United States itself.
But partly also the response can be attributed to this particular Pope, rather than the office he holds.
Vocal on the need to tackle climate change and the so-called inequalities of the capitalist system, Pope Francis has been claimed by many in the global and American Left as a progressive hero, a kind of robed and holy Bono.
For weeks before his arrival, placards placed around DC urged citizens to join the Pope’s “climate change rally”, and many of those watching his address to Congress from the West Lawn of the Capitol carried environmentalist slogans, clapping wildly at his comments around the need to be good stewards of the Earth and conveniently ignoring his comments around the sanctity of traditional marriage.
True, Francis is more liberal than his predecessors on a whole range of issues, but he is still the Pope. The ridiculous attempt to paint him as some sort of modern Che Guevara has little resemblance to the truth, but it does go some way to explaining the reception.
But putting cynicism to one side briefly, the Francis fever is also naturally a response to the message of unity and hope the Pope offers.
When compared with the rough and tumble divisiveness of everyday democracy – not to mention the hate and vitriol spewed out by other religious leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini – Pope Francis exhibits a feel-good and infectious optimism that many, especially here in the cynical political mecca of Washington need to hear.
As the presidential election campaign shows signs it will only get more bitter – and exciting – Pope Francis provided the news cycle a few days of peaceful respite.
For me personally, even as a non-Catholic (albeit a Jesuit-educated one) it was a truly inspiring and memorable moment to be blessed by the Pope and witness this historic moment and the interesting embrace of the American people.
But now that he is gone, all eyes turn back to Trump.
Pope Francis blesses the crowd on West Lawn of the Capitol
This article was published on 27 September 2015