Five things to look for during the papal visit

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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The pope’s visit to the United States is going to be a whirlwind affair with scores of events and activities. In the midst of this papal storm, here are five things to focus on.

First, Francis the man.

This will be America’s first opportunity to see the pope up-close and personal. He is going to be treated like a rock star, but he is no ordinary celebrity. What people will notice is that, for the pope, the visit is not all about himself. It is about the Gospel message of God’s love and compassion and our responsibility to respond to that love by loving our brothers and sisters, especially the poor.

In other words, he is not selling himself; he is selling the Gospel message of Jesus.

Americans are not used to humble celebrities; the phrase is an oxymoron. But for Pope Francis, it is all about others.

So the first thing to watch for is the pope’s interaction with people, especially the sick, the poor and the marginalized. This pope preaches not only with words, but with actions.

I am willing to go out on a limb and predict that his poll ratings will be up after the visit because even those who disagree with him like and respect him.

Second, Francis the prophet.

A prophet is someone who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. He speaks truth to power.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he once told a church full of politicians and government officials on a civic holiday that they should put aside corruption and take care of the poor. They were so angry that they did not come back the following year but found a more hospitable church for their celebration.

Everyone is looking forward to what the pope will say to a joint session of Congress Sept. 24. Will he urge them to care for the poor, welcome the immigrant, work for peace, protect the environment, and cherish life?

His documents Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” are hard-hitting attacks on libertarian capitalism, globalization, and a consumer-based economy. Simply quoting himself would be a striking message to Congress that would upset many comfortable people who like the status quo.

Third, Francis the peacemaker.

Ever since Pope Paul VI spoke to the United Nations in 1965, it has become a tradition for popes to make a substantive address at the U.N. This is an opportunity for the pope to lay out his international agenda, to call for peace and reconciliation among peoples. Francis has already shown himself to be a consummate diplomat by midwifing an agreement between Cuba and the United States that has restored diplomatic relations.

It will be interesting to hear what he has to say about Cuban-U.S. relations while he is in Cuba before flying to the United States. Could the Castro regime be smart enough to put some high-profile political prisoners on the pope’s plane? This would reduce congressional opposition to repealing economic sanctions and shield Cuba from appearing to cave in to American pressure.

Papal addresses to the United Nations traditionally focus on peace and development, but Sept. 25, Francis will undoubtedly add a plea for the environment, in line with his encyclical Laudato Si’. He knows that tough negotiations are ahead at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of the year.

He will remind the world that it is facing a global crisis of apocalyptic dimensions, and all nations must make sacrifices for the common good. For the pope, this is a moral issue because it will affect the lives of people, especially the poor. He will also speak about refugees and religious freedom. 

Fourth, Francis the pastor.

The pope is coming not just to talk to government officials and the United Nations. He is also coming to inspire the Catholic faithful and their bishops. He comes to preach and break bread with them.

His meeting with the American bishops in Washington on Sept. 23 will be especially interesting. Many people complain that the Francis revolution is not succeeding in the United States because many of the bishops and clergy are not onboard. They just don’t get it. What will he say to them?

For a preview, one might look at what Francis said to the bishops in Brazil when he visited there.

In his July 27, 2014, address to the Brazilian bishops and his address the next day to the Latin American Episcopal Conference, Francis set forth his ecclesiology, his pastoral priorities for the church. He talked of training ministers who could warm people’s hearts, of being a church of mercy and forgiveness, of empowering women in the church, of developing a proactive mindset, and of empowering the laity to share in the church’s mission.

Do we give the laity, he asked, “the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?”

Finally, Francis on message.

Many people are going to try to manipulate the pope’s visit for their own agendas. Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and pro-life activists, bishops and victims of abuse are all going to say that their issues are the most important. Spin doctors will pontificate; critics will say he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

The inevitable goofs and stumbles of any major visit will take attention away from his message, but Francis has shown a remarkable ability to stay on message despite the circus that surrounds him.

He will focus on God’s compassion and love, and on our responsibility to love one another. His priorities are helping the poor, protecting the environment, and bringing peace to a troubled world.

Some people will find these teaching hard and “no longer walk with him” (John 6:66). This should not surprise us. The teachings of Jesus met opposition and created controversy. Being true to the Gospel will also make Francis controversial, but that will not stop him from fulfilling his prophetic and pastoral mission.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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