For Pope Francis, a pilgrimage in three acts Agenda will be mix of political and ecclesiastical, with an emphasis on the service of all to the authentic common good
This article originally appeared in OurSundayVisitor
The visit of Pope Francis to the United States from Sept. 22-27 is the most anticipated papal trip to America since Pope St. John Paul II’s monumental first journey to the country in 1979. For John Paul II, that inaugural trip was the first of seven to America. This is not only Francis’ first to the United States as pope but also the first time he has ever been in the country. Given his age, which is 78, and the number of other places he still plans to visit, the odds are good that this will be the only time in his pontificate that Americans will see him in person on American soil.
The agenda is a full one for the pope, and as with any papal visit, it will be a mix of the ecclesiastical and the political. That means Masses in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, and meetings with American bishops, clergy and religious as well as stops as a head of state to the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the United Nations. And there is the primary reason he is coming: the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The papal visit, then, is a pilgrimage in three acts, weaving his three stops together under the key theme of striving together at the service of the authentic common good. As he wrote in his second encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (No. 13). His latest encyclical, released in June, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” will almost certainly be a touchstone for his journey to the United States as it was in South America in July. If so, his words will challenge, encourage and probably infuriate many in the political and media classes.
Urging political action
In Washington, D.C., Pope Francis will talk directly to America’s ruling establishment in its own hall and deliver the first ever papal address to the joint houses of Congress. The pontiff reportedly will speak to Congress in English and will exhort U.S. leaders to put their house in order and be genuine public servants. As he wrote in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), “I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots — and not simply the appearances — of the evils in our world!” (No. 205). And he will remind American leaders that faith has much to contribute to that quest. In Evangelii Gaudium, he wrote, “[A] healthy pluralism … does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques” (No. 255).
In speaking about the economy, he will note the role America must play in ending what he calls the “globalization of indifference” and a “throwaway culture” that leads to Americans comprising 5 percent of the world’s population while consuming 24 percent of the world’s energy.
He will not permit liberal politicians to hide behind concern for the natural environment while abetting the wanton destruction of the human environment. “Concern for the protection of nature,” Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, “is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (No. 120).
Conversely, he will not allow conservatives to dismiss his critique of capitalism as an excuse to do nothing about nurturing integral development. Criticized for his views on global economics, Francis promised to study the words of his critics and to dialogue with them. How that will play out is one of the challenges of the trip, but look for Francis to tell conservatives and free market Catholics, “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, No. 129).
And then there is the thorny issue of immigration that Francis likely will raise before Congress. Francis brings a global perspective to the question and is keenly aware that the same problems of illegal immigration that are dividing America are taxing the resources of every continent as hundreds of millions are on the move to escape poverty, war and political and religious strife. In New York and Philadelphia, the Holy Father will meet with immigrant families and give a human face to the plights of migrants. The phenomenon of mass migration also will be on the agenda when he addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations, in Spanish, on Sept. 25. Talking to the globe’s diplomats in the media capital of the world, he will look unblinkingly at the scourge of human trafficking that he has condemned as “a plague on humanity” and a “shameful wound” that has no place in civil society. His plea, as well, for global cooperation on the environment will again be anchored in Laudato Si’ and the principle of integral ecology that asks the hard question, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (No. 160).
Leaving a lasting mark
In Philadelphia, the papal journey will culminate with the pope’s much anticipated participation in the closing events of the weeklong international gathering on the family, and all eyes will be fixed on the papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Sept. 27, which anywhere from hundreds of thousands to 1.5 million faithful are expected to attend. Here, Francis will forecast what he will say at the ordinary Synod of Bishops that is scheduled to start only a week after his return to Rome. The pope will warn of the dangers of being contaminated by what he calls a worldly mentality of individualism, consumerism, hedonism and gender ideology. Positively, he will plead for America and the world “to rediscover ever again the royal road, in order to live and proclaim the grandeur and beauty of marriage and the joy of being and making a family,” as he wrote in his Letter for the World Meeting of Families.
Finally, more than even his words, Francis’ gestures — both planned and unplanned — will teach America once again that the authentic common good is not some set of environmental, business and political policies. In his visits to a homeless shelter, his embrace of migrant workers and his gentle kiss on the forehead of an old woman banished to the increasingly forgotten peripheries of American life, he will demonstrate love of God and of neighbor. As he said soon after his election, this is “not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.