Pope Francis' trip: A home run

Story highlights

  • Moss: Francis walked a tightrope between promoting traditional Catholic positions and advancing social justice concerns
  • The Pope deftly handled the public appearances, sending the messages he wanted his audiences to receive, and they applauded

Candida Moss is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of "Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Childlessness and Procreation" (Princeton University Press, 2015). The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)To put it in American terminology, it was a home run. Or a slam dunk. Or, given the multiplicity of issues, it was a hat trick.

Throughout his visit, Pope Francis walked a tightrope between promoting traditional Catholic positions on bedroom ethics and religious freedom, and advancing social justice concerns like immigration, opposition to the death penalty and arms trade, and concern for the homeless. And everyone -- from crowds to Congress -- applauded him for it.
Candida Moss
In many ways he was all things to all people, in tone as well as content. The lofty philosophical language of his address to the United Nations ("aprioristic"? "declarationist nominalism"?) was followed by the emotional sensitivity and heartfelt depth of his words at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Francis had a message and method for communicating with everyone.
    With so many engagements over the course of the past week, Francis also had the opportunity to demonstrate a remarkable sense of timing. His support for the Iran nuclear deal, only alluded to in his address to Congress, became explicit when he took the stage in front of the United Nations. And his concern that Western society enforces ideological consistency became increasingly apparent during the visit. Understating hot-button issues in sensitive venues, only to circle back to them on other occasions, was, in many ways, a hallmark of the trip.
    Scheduling was also strategic in his dealings with church matters: He met privately in Washington with the Little Sisters of the Poor (a group currently suing the government over the requirement in Obamacare that employers provide contraception) before publicly praising women religious (who had been censored by U.S. bishops for their seemingly liberal views) at St. Patrick's on Thursday night. And he commended bishops for their courage in handling the sex abuse scandals, before convening privately with survivors of abuse. The delicate balance between private and public, conservative and liberal, was navigated with great care and greater public relations savvy.
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    Perhaps most surprisingly, Francis exhibited an exquisite sense of what kind of language and icons speak to the American people. The repeated self-references to his status as an immigrant, the gestures to American heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and the appeal to the specifically American value of religious freedom made his speeches connect in ways that sheer charisma did not.
    Francis certainly did his homework, using common denominators like the Golden Rule and concern for our children to win over the ambiguously Christian moral majority. And while there were winners and losers (immigrants and the environment coming out top, Native Americans languishing at the bottom of the rankings), it was a visit that had something for everyone.
    It was, without a doubt, a success for the Holy See and Pope Francis. But, long term, what will be the impact of this historic visit?
    In religious quarters, the big winners were the U.S .bishops. Francis praised them not only for their courage in facing up to the sex abuse scandals but also for their charitable activities and their record in supporting immigration reform. His criticisms of them were subtle. In his arrival remarks at the White House, he referred to the U.S. bishops' efforts to promote religious freedom. Between this and his refrain that religious freedom must be defended, the bishops can feel assured that they are on the right course.
    For the laity, the primary practical message was to pray. Francis' practice of asking others to pray for him -- something that he told everyone from small children to illustrious politicians -- is one of the most poignantly humble aspects of his persona. But it was also a practical instruction. Before his lunchtime meeting with the homeless in Washington, he described prayer as something that erased differences of race, ethnicity, and class.
    While his personal conduct witnesses to a whole host of behaviors he would like others to adopt, his direct message for the moment was to pray. This is something that Catholic groups will seek to capitalize on in the next year.
    In the political arena, there was something for everyone. Everyone, that is, except the United Nations, which was reprimanded for exploitative lending and ideological colonization with respect to gender identity and, perhaps, contraception.
    Republicans and Democrats alike will find things to latch onto in Francis' words. The more vocal pushback from sourpuss conservatives should not convince us that Francis is politically liberal. He is not. These complaints are merely a witness to the ways that some U.S. Catholics, spoiled by the easy alliance between the church and the Republican Party in the past 20 years, feel irritated by Francis' language about sustainability and wealth distribution.
    What we can and should expect is a race to appropriate Francis' message on both sides of the aisle. His language about religious freedom will be music to the ears of the supporters of Kim Davis. Bernie Sanders, for his part, has already used Twitter to position himself as just to the right of Pope Francis. For the next 12 months, Francis will serve as a scriptural resource for aspiring presidential nominees and will have proven that he is more than just a tweetable pope.