Welcome to DC, Pope Francis

Heart and mind, faith and institution, and the church in the world.

My neighbor weighs three hundred million pounds.

She is the largest Catholic church in the US, and she is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.basilica-of-the-national

Wednesday, Pope Francis is paying a friendly visit. He is expected to bring a houseplant, stay for tea, and shut down the neighborhood for 24 hours. My daughter’s preschool is closed for the day. Barricades have lined the sidewalks, streets, and parks for a week.

I admit, it makes sense. My quaint neighborhood in northeast DC is the unofficial/official headquarters of American Catholicism. The Basilica is two doors down from my house, but nestled in between is the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Catholic University of America fills the surrounding acreage. We have two large monasteries, the Archdiocese for the Armed Services, and many smaller institutions. The subway stop mixes students, businessmen, beggars, nuns in habit, and frocked seminarians.

The city is ablaze about the visit. Everyone’s been talking about it for weeks. For all I know, it’s all the pope has been talking about, too.

It’s a funny thing to see this on the newspapers, in everyday conversations, on social media. We all know this pope’s intriguing allure. Even Catholics who question his approach must be quietly pleased by the ability of a 78 year-old man to make the world’s oldest institution seem fresh, hopeful, colorful.

But what’s really funny is how uniformly acceptable this three-day religious festival is. You see Kim Davis on the news, presidential candidates decrying the triumph of the secular beast, and you’d think this is Nigeria with Islamic extremists chopping Christians heads off. It is easy to forget that it is still far more difficult in this country to be a Muslim or gay than it is to be a Christian.

But the papal visit goes beyond this reminder of a Christian majority (even if it is a vaguely-Christian majority). Pomp and procession are lining the roads in very un-evangelical ways. It’s all so … official. Francis is a personality, for sure, but this is all for the sacred dignity of an office.

On a little reflection, it’s slightly embarrassing for Americans, unbelieving and Protestant alike, for whom the separation of church and state allows faith to be fully heartfelt without having necessary connections to objective things like social order and institutions. Why do I feel like I am in 19th century Italy, with robed processions in the streets stealing the public eye, marching up to government corridors and being treated like the elder brother?

Flying Buttresses

I am not Catholic. I approach all of this as an outsider, or as the kind of semi-outsider that Protestant Christians become at moments like these. And yet I am thinking about my own faith which, whether I like it or not, is in fact a religion. I think in such personal terms about prayer, commitment, and worship; but if the kingdom of God is marching on, Congresses will notice, the public will turn an eye.

There is a fine balance here, between “my kingdom is not of this world” and “the kingdom of heaven advances violently.” The inwardness of the heart is not meant to compromise the value of the body and the world, and it may be that an uneven focus on the subjective grasp of faith kills its outward supports – which, like flying buttresses on a cathedral, allow us to build higher and grander than we might do by ourselves.

My Other Dome

dsc_0662At the other end of my daily commute is the US Capitol – perhaps the most visible political symbol in the world. Compared to the Basilica, it is similarly grand. I spent a year giving tours of the Capitol, and I love it like an heirloom, a Stradivarius brought out simply to admire. The columns, the marble, the sculpted pediments: they are treasures for me.

The pope speaks at a joint session of Congress Thursday, thus snarling this part of the city. We will watch him as hundreds of politicians bask in his glow, and we will forget that these same men and women are careening toward a government shutdown in one week.

Sometimes it’s really hard for me to be here. The grandstanding, the bullshit ideologizing of practical problems – this is not what I came to DC for.

And here sweeps in the Holy Father. He won’t tame them, but they will listen to him. The most public face of the Christian faith will be treated as the most important human in the room. People are waiting for words about climate change, about abortion, about immigrants and poverty. I bet he brings them, but will you notice when he preaches? When he talks about faith in God? The cable talk shows will disregard it as necessary filler, but get this: the head of a Christian institution is using his organizational ties and social capital in calculated ways to advance the kingdom and declare the reign of king Jesus.

The goal is, of course, to change hearts, but hearts change for many reasons. The pope makes me think again about building and leveraging social networks for the Christian faith. You can always criticize these things from a heart perspective, because institutions do not have hearts or subjective commitments. But there is a right use of institutions and organizations and social capital – as a tool – that we evangelicals have never quite trusted. It is a fine balance, but the pope makes me think I have been leaning to far in one direction.

Fourth and East Capitol

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My favorite intersection in the federal city is four blocks from the US Capitol: Fourth and East Capitol Street.

I discovered it earlier this year. I was driving down Fourth Street NE, coming up to the traffic light. I looked to my right, and there is the seat of the legislative branch, in all its majesty. Breathtaking every time I see it. Then I glanced at my rearview mirror, back north from whence I came, and there is a direct view of the Basilica three miles away.

My first thought was, Damn, this city is well designed. But there was a kind of pre-thought feeling, too. Something sublime. The Capitol is sitting here, ruling the landscape. The great church, on the other hand, is in my rearview mirror just asking to be a metaphor for what is past, what is behind us in this country.

But both of them, with their enormous domes, are perched on their respective hills as monoliths that will never go away. They pear around at 360 degrees and watch as neighborhoods change, as clothes go in and out of style, as people hate and work and violate and meander.

On the one hand, that Basilica will never be a Capitol. It has no aspirations to host a joint session of Congress. It is not of this world. On the other hand, it is an embassy of a political force and therefore shows itself as one. It is grand because it is meant to turn heads, to make its presence felt. Such an aim without deeply evangelical hearts is going to dry up into three hundred million pounds of deadness: cold, hard stones. But with deeply evangelical hearts: Christian institutional work, neighborhood presence, political savvy, and networking are flying buttresses to build up a great cathedral of accumulated kingdom advances.

As the pope knows, institutions are a mess. But they are worth building.

Bryan Wandel
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.

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