Richard Greene

Pope’s visit serves as reminder of Christianity’s long journey

Pope Francis leads an evening prayer service Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Pope Francis leads an evening prayer service Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. AP

Pope Francis’ visit has provided columnists across the nation’s media the opportunity to fully venture into the world of controversy that always accompanies discussion of religion and politics.

It’s a moment not to be missed and, as you may have noticed, the airwaves, newsprint and especially the social media are awash with the issues brought front and center by the pontiff’s arrival in our country.

Francis’ positions seemingly offer something for all sides of the political scrum, with the added dimension of his interpretation of Scripture.

Conservatives endorse his stand on the sanctity of human life, his definition of marriage and even his admonition for our leaders of “fidelity to [our nation’s] founding principles.”

It probably didn’t escape his notice on the very day of his arrival that Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked still another proposal that would have placed limits on when a woman could destroy the life of her unborn child.

The left applauds Francis’ criticism of our system of capitalism, which has produced the most prosperous nation in human history, and of those who do not support what he says are scientific findings of the human causes of global warming.

I’m going to set all of that aside. A personal experience during a recent trip to Rome points me in a different direction.

Of all the places we explored, the most sobering was one of the city’s 40 or so known catacombs that traverse an estimated 375 miles of tomb-lined tunnels that once contained the remains of unknowable thousands of early Christians.

The persecution of the followers of Christ continued for three centuries after his crucifixion and the deaths of his disciples, including St. Peter, who became the first pope.

While historians argue over the dimensions of the torment suffered by those whose religion was seen as a threat to Rome’s pagan society, we know that the atrocities were unspeakable.

From the “sport” of being torn apart by animals in the arena of the Colosseum for the delight of spectatorsto reports of the emperor Nero setting them on fire to provide him light in the night, there was a clear mission to eliminate Christians altogether.

As we all know, that mission failed. Dramatically.

Our tour guide at St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church and the centerpiece of the Eternal City, told us that if we would like to visit a different church in Rome every day, it would take exactly one year, because there are 365 of them.

She also confirmed that Peter’s bones, once relegated to one of those catacombs outside the city, are now entombed below the altar of the holy shrine identified as the greatest of all churches in Christendom.

Popes who live and minister there during their reign, including this week’s visitor to our country, are recognized as principal figures of the world’s largest religion.

So, in the midst of all the politics and analyses that highlight Francis’ time in the United States, I see him as a vivid representative of the life of a man who identified himself as the very Son of God.

The same God we call upon for protection when seeking our freedom and independence from an earthly king, and upon whom every one of our presidents seeks blessings for the future of our nation.

Above all else, I think it’s that reality that should be front and center as we host today’s symbolic holy figure of faith.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.