Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the United States on Sept. 22. It will not only be his first trip to the United States as pope, but his first trip to the United States ever. There is an incredible sense of anticipation as Americans of every religion and no religion await the visit.
There are many issues that the pope can be expected to address during this visit. It is likely to be quite significant from many perspectives. The issues Francis will be addressing are pretty clear. They include climate change, immigration, poverty, the weaknesses of capitalism, abortion, and the teachings of the church on social justice.
What is less clear is what approach the pope will take to these issues. Will he speak in general terms projecting a vision or an ideal, or will he directly challenge Congress and the United Nations to address these issues? Will he insist that changes be made in how wealthy nations and the powerful take care of the poor and work to alleviate hunger? Will he demand that capitalist countries institute reforms and adopt regulatory policies to protect the poor and the powerless?
We are waiting for Pope Francis, because every word he utters will be analyzed and interpreted in an effort to hone his message for particular audiences. Unfortunately, each group will focus on what they agree with and downplay whatever they have trouble accepting. Republicans will find solace in every word he says regarding abortion and perhaps same-sex marriage. Democrats will extol his words on just about every other issue.
One might wonder what difference it makes. Who is Pope Francis and what does it matter what the Catholic church thinks about these issues? They might be right. What will be most interesting to see is what happens in Congress after the pope returns to the Vatican. Will there be a change in tone? Will his visit inaugurate a new civility and willingness to work with those with whom there is disagreement? Will legislation get passed that has hitherto failed to pass? Can we, for example, see movement on the issue of immigration? All of these questions remind us why we will be watching this papal visit so closely.
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Finally, there is an additional issue on the pope’s mind which is indicated by his decision to visit Cuba just before arriving in the United States. By this visit to Cuba the pope reminds us of his involvement and advocacy in the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. He puts himself forward as one who believes in the importance of diplomacy. His efforts in this area also point to the need to give peace a chance on the Iran deal, a likely topic for Pope Francis at the United Nations and Congress.
I, along with the rest of the country am anxiously awaiting this papal visit, and I am hopeful that it will be a defining moment for Francis and an important lead up to the Synod of Bishops on the family which will follow upon the pope’s return to Rome. Yet, I have a confession to make. I have somehow managed to plan my personal schedule in a way that will have me out of the country, in Vienna, visiting my 8-month-old granddaughter, during the entire time of the pope’s visit. So, I will indeed be hanging on Francis’ every word, yet the truth is, it will be little Amelia Marie who will be at the center of my attention.