Pope Francis: welcoming a trip “home”

I’m enjoying seeing Pope Francis enjoy World Youth Day, and the chance to be closer to home and in a more familiar cultural milieu. He was clearly moved – and at home – at the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida, where he spent a month in 2007.

Who to sit with at World Youth Day? Cartoneros.
Who to sit with at World Youth Day? Cartoneros.

His encounters with the clergy and people from Argentina are touching. True to his heart for the poor, he seeks out the poorest of the poor from his home country: the cartoneros who survive by picking through the trash for discarded items to use or sell.

No one has written about Pope Francis in terms of culture shock, but it’s something we should think about.  Anyone who is elected pope, or posted to a position in a different country, experiences some of it.  Students on study abroad programs find themselves longing for anything familiar – even a McDonald’s – to relieve the stress of an environment where everything is unfamiliar.  Much was written about what a change it is for the Church to have her first non-European pope in centuries.  Few have written about what it is like to be that Pope.

When I was a child, my family lived for several months in Santiago, Chile.  Differences that kept surprising me included those below. Pope Francis is probably living through the same process: our minds expect one thing, and then have to work through the surprise of what really occurs.

  • Christmas fell in the middle of summer vacation on some of the warmest days of the year.  Jingle Bells and In the Deep Midwinter and Silent Night were eerily familiar.
  • All the rituals are slightly different: greetings, the pace of conversation, the degree of animation that is expected or accepted, the usual style of laughter.  It’s easy to seem standoffish, boorish, stupid or uncouth when navigating across cultural boundaries.
    (I wonder if some of what the media calls Pope Francis’ unique “style” includes the customs of his native country. One website says Argentinians are “warm peoples” whose “unreservedness brings to the fore their passion and sentimentality” while also have an “open, blunt, and direct” style of talking, being “close communicators physically” who “often touch each other when speaking and maintain little physical distance between speakers.” )
  • Familiar products, like CocaCola, tasted or felt different because of local formulations or differences in ingredients.  Some items aren’t even available.  The objects of everyday life — door knobs, toilets, the numbering and arrangement of elevator buttons — are often just slightly different.

Everything is usable — but a person moving into a new culture has to stop think about these everyday items that the natives use without even noticing.  Pope John Paul II probably had something of this culture shock, coming from behind the then-Iron Curtain. But even he had spent time in Rome for studies and was relatively closer to home and to old friends and associates.

So I am not only happy for the people who are having such a spiritual uplift at World Youth Day.  I am also glad that, at least a little bit, Pope Francis is having a trip closer to home, to be in basilicas and cathedrals that are familiar to him, to hear the sounds and foods and sights that he left behind.


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