It was billed as a sort of Catholic variety show, with world-class performers from Aretha Franklin to Andrea Bocelli and even a stand-up comic. Nobody thoughtPope Franciswould be the one doing the improv.
He did not wade further into US political debate with a clarion call for housing, healthcare and workers’ rights as
planned. He still did not mention abortion or marriage equality. But he did throw out another written speech entirely and, with apparent spontaneity, gave exuberant and unscripted remarks about God, family and love.
The pastoral address ignored the culture wars and instead veered between piety, homespun advice and laughs – including a line about mothers-in-law.
“You know what God loves most?” he asked the crowd, hushed and enraptured on a moonlit night. “To knock on the door of families and to find the families who love each other – families who bring up their children to grow and to move forward. Who create, who develop a society of truth, goodness and beauty.”
It was the Argentinean pontiff in parish priest mode, speaking from the heart, and off-the-cuff, to a flock which happened to include a live, global television audience.
“A child once asked me – and you know that kids ask difficult questions – he asked me, ‘Father, what did God do before he created the world?’”
The audience, which included Franklin, Sister Sledge, Mark Wahlberg, the comedian Jim Gaffigan and other warm-up acts, laughed, and the pope continued with a smile. “I can assure you, I found it really hard to answer the question.”
It was a radical, unexpected departure from a prepared text, released to the media under embargo beforehand, which would have been his most politically explicit speech in his six-day US tour, which ends on Sunday.
In the text, which papal officials released for publication after the concert, Francis suggested the US had endangered its future by failing to support the poor with jobs and welfare programs. It called on Americans to embrace an idea beloved by Democrats and abhorred by Republicans: expand government support for housing, healthcare and workers’ rights.
It was the stuff of Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist running for president, not the spiritual leader of some 50 million American Catholics often guided by hard-line bishops and pro-life groups.
Instead of giving conservatives heartburn, however, Francis improvised a pastoral address, apparently a response to the emotion of families on stage who shared stories of immigration and hardship, as well as Franklin’s soaring performance of Ave Maria.
“Before creating the world, God loved,” said Francis, developing a theme of the family, which he called “the most beautiful thing that God made”.
The 78-year-old, a former bouncer who reportedly had three girlfriends before becoming a priest, described the family as “a factory of hope”, each one with “divine citizenship”. He then cracked: “Some of you might say, ‘Of course, Father, you speak like that because you’re not married!’”
He leavened somber reflections – that many families “carry a cross”, suffer indignities and separate – with similar wit. “Families face many difficulties,” he said. “Families fight. And sometimes plates fly, and sometimes kids get knocked on the head. And let’s not even talk about mothers-in-law.”
The impromptu homily about love and domestic quarrels replaced a far more divisive set of principles that he was supposed to deliver.
The planned speech lamented the struggles of Americans without employment or workers’ rights, the lack of access to basic health services, and the absence of reliable housing programs.
“We cannot call any society healthy when it does not leave real room for family life,” the original speech reads. “We cannot think that a society has a future when it fails to pass laws capable of protecting families and ensuring their basic needs, especially those of families just starting out.”
Intentionally or not, the pontiff’s politically tinged address would have bolstered his progressive reputation, even though traditional Catholic social doctrine has long espoused access to housing, medical aid and work.
The address would have undercut the vows of Republican presidential candidates to curb or dismantle Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation , welfare support and union rights – hot-button issues in the increasingly bitter, polarised race for the White House.
Five of those candidates are Catholics, and as frontrunner Donald Trump’s inflammatory remarks about “rapist” immigrants have pushed the race to the right wing, all the candidates have taken up positions on that issue, welfare programs, healthcare and climate change that are at odds with the pope’s.
In contrast, Sanders, the Vermont senator nipping at Hillary Clinton’s lead for the Democratic nomination for president, would have found himself the pope’s odd but most amiable ally after such a deeply critical speech.