September 11, 2015


What to expect during Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.

You might have heard: Pope Francis is coming to the United States.

Yes, popes have come to the United States before, but this visit is historic for various reasons.

First of all, this particular pope has never been here before. Second, he will be the first pope to speak to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington, which he will do on Sept. 24. While here, he will also speak to the United Nations in New York on Sept. 25 and will attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27. He will meet with the U.S. bishops while in Philadelphia.

Here are two other things he will do that previous popes have not done, but which are typical for this pope: He will visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, and he will visit prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

One more historical event: For the first time, a pope will canonize someone while in the United States. Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra on Sept. 23 during a Mass on the grounds outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

For a pope who has been making news ever since his election, there can be no doubt that the media will cover this visit closely. There is speculation about what he is going to say to Congress and the United Nations. We don’t know, but we think we can make some informed guesses.

To both Congress and to the UN, he surely will stress the necessity of welcoming immigrants, especially refugees. That has been a constant message for him. Many thousands of refugees have been trying to escape from the Middle East to Europe, many dying in the attempt, while in the United States presidential candidate Donald Trump has been demonizing immigrants and feeding nativist biases. It seems certain that Pope Francis won’t keep silent about that.

Another issue that the pope seems certain to address is our responsibility to care for the environment. He issued his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” on June 18. He had been writing it for a long time, so it’s hard to imagine that he won’t talk about that before Congress and the United Nations. He probably won’t make happy those who deny that climate change is happening, and that humans are partially responsible for it.

Another of his favorite themes has been defense of religious freedom, and we expect to hear something about that to both his international audience at the UN and members of Congress. At the UN, he surely will ask the world to condemn the atrocities of ISIS and to unite to stop them. To the Congress, he might stress the need to ensure that the religious freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution are respected in practice.

We expect him to emphasize that legislation must take into consideration how it will affect the poor, and that they must receive preferential treatment. He might say something about the sin of greed, which he called “a horrible virus” during his general audience on Aug. 12. And somewhere in his speech to Congress he will probably remind the legislators about the sacredness of human life.

In Philadelphia, the emphasis will be on the family, of course. The World Meeting of Families is an event held every three years since 1994, but this is the first time it will be in the United States. The theme is “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”

Pope Francis has spoken frequently about the importance of the family, including during his address in Manila, Philippines, in January. He said, “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”

Since this meeting of families is so close to October’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family, the media will likely listen closely for hints about what the pope might do about issues that have made the news lately, like Communion for couples who are divorced and remarried or same-sex couples who have entered into civil marriages.

We’ll wait and see.

—John F. Fink

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