Celebrating American Catholics

In his remarks to Pope Francis at Independence Hall, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia name-dropped Alexander Hamilton in praising the contributions of immigrants to the nation’s civic fabric. It may have been a coincidence that Hamilton was mentioned just as so many people are discovering his story for the first time through the popular musical, but it’s wildly appropriate. Hamilton tells the story of the unlikeliest Founding Father using hip-hop and rap, a cast almost entirely composed of people of color, and a lens on the American Revolution that portrays the war as a gritty struggle rather than a fated victory for liberty. It tells an old story in new voices, and in so doing it enables people who have often felt excluded from the narrative of American history to feel it is their birthright. It shows Americans of color that the traditions of their nation belong to them, and what it looks like when they say so.

Pope Francis is doing something similar for American Catholics. He is telling an old story (his politics, however vaguely controversial their stylistic expression, are unsurprisingly traditional and his preaching is about two thousand years old) but throughout his visit he made a point of using new voices—American voices. He canonized an American saint, recalled American heroes, enjoyed American music and American liturgy, and exalted American ingenuity and uniqueness. His visit showed American Catholics what it looks like to be rooted in both of their traditions, and make that visible. Francis does for Catholicism what Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, does for American history: he invites a new audience to take part.

That doesn’t mean the Pope’s visit will produce a surge in American Mass-attendance numbers any more than Hamilton will cause history Ph.D. applications to spike. What it does mean is that for a few days, American Catholics got to look at themselves represented in their fullness and their beauty, and they got to celebrate that. For many of us—who spend so much time writing about the next religious-liberty fight or fitting in at our secular schools or feeling out of place in a country that doesn’t always feel like it counts us among its own—that will be enough.

I’m at TAC reflecting on the papal parade, and why moments like this don’t need to change the world to have been worth it. Sometimes, you just gotta celebrate.

Celebrating American Catholics

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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