Pope’s Trip to U.S.: Why?

To understand his visit, understand the man first

by Deirdre Reilly | Updated 21 Sep 2015 at 4:48 AM

Pope Francis, the 76-year-old leader of the Catholic Church and the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, will be in America this week for the first time, not just as pontiff but for the first time in his life.

The faithful, and likely many non-Catholics as well, hope for inspiration and spiritual renewal from the pope’s visit at a time when many feel the country is going off the rails morally. Immigrants, environmentalists, and the merely curious will follow the pope’s travels and activities with interest.

906But what about the pope’s own goals on this inaugural visit?

“My people are poor and I am one of them” may be the line to remember as the pope and the United States get to know one another. It is something of a personal tagline, according to The Holy See website, and explains his modest personal habits that include living in a simple dormitory-style housing with others, and preparing his own meals.

It also explains his kind but slightly wary eye toward America, a world superpower that many Latin Americans — particularly of his age group — view as a capitalistic machine whose driving force is greed, one that destroys natural resources, has a military that once supported dictators during the Cold War, and can be blind to their own most vulnerable citizens.

“Is the Pope anti-American? No. But it is fair to say that he probably shares what a lot of Latin Americans do: a healthy suspicion of their neighbors to the North,” one Vatican official commented, according to the UK’s The Guardian.

Related: Pope’s Hyperfocus on Migrants

He will travel in the orbits of the mighty and powerful, meeting with President Barack Obama and speaking before a joint session of Congress, but many familiar with the pope know his sharp attention will be with the the marginalized and invisible in society.

To understand the pope’s goals on his trip to America, it is important to understand the man himself.

Pope Francis, whose given name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born Dec. 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the son of Italian immigrants. His father, Mario Bergoglio, was an accountant employed by the railways, and his mother, Regina Sivori, was a homemaker who raised five children. Jorge Bergoglio began seminary studies to become a Jesuit priest at age 23, joining an order that has a particular emphasis on global justice, peace, and dialogue, according to Jesuits.org.

The pope will most likely encourage America to take better care of the poor in both his words and his deeds. 

Later, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis had four main goals, according to his biography on The Holy See website: open and brotherly communities, a lead role for an informed laity, evangelization efforts addressed by every inhabitant of the city, and aid to the poor and the sick.

The message he will probably deliver, Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times, is “that America has been blessed with great gifts, but that from those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Related: Understanding a Jesuit Pope

The pope has an interest and appreciation of the United States, however, and celebrates the fact that this country has been built on the talents and skills of immigrants, with a spirited and diverse population, as well as abundant natural beauty and resources.

What specific messages will he concentrate on during his U.S. visit? Most likely are these four areas, delivered in several addresses that also will serve as calls to conscience:

Family. Pope Francis is expected to promote help for middle-class families through his words on a fair and just economy. In Philadelphia at the end of this week, he will greet attendees of the World Meeting of Families. (He recently called rampant capitalism “the dung of the devil” during a trip to Bolivia.) He likely will address immigrant families in pointed remarks by warning of the repercussions of potentially restrictive immigration policies that separate families.

Ecology. At the United Nations on Friday, the pope is scheduled to speak for a half hour; those remarks are expected to include an emphasis on the environment. Francis published a major teaching document on the environment before his visit in which he called for action on climate change, Religion News reports, as well as discussing the human role in creating it.

Related: Baked Alaska

“Do not expect statistics or numbers or theories” in the encyclical, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a top adviser to Francis, told an audience at Georgetown University recently. “He will go directly to the responsibility of all the baptized, especially with creation.”

The Poor. Francis will most likely encourage America to take better care of its poor.

“I think the Holy Father sees the influence the U.S. has throughout the world and wants to make sure the plight of the poorest people is served,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the New York Times.

After his address to Congress, the pope will attend an outdoor lunch under tents on the street with homeless, mentally ill and immigrant clients of Catholic Charities.

Francis might offer praise for the U.S.’s rich history of accepting immigrants and may denounce mass deportation policies.

Immigration. The pope was instrumental in the new relationship between Cuba and America, surprisingly establishing the Vatican as a political force internationally. Guzman Carriquiry, vice president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, and a friend of the pope’s, suggested at a recent Philadelphia conference that Francis might offer praise for the U.S.’s rich history of accepting immigrants, and may denounce mass deportation policies, according to The Guardian. He also will be meeting with immigrants at Independence Hall while in Philadelphia.

Related: Half of Legal Immigrants are on Welfare

The pope will attempt to rejuvenate the Catholic Church while on U.S. soil. A recent Pew Forum report reveals the church is losing more followers than any other denomination. Thirteen percent of Americans call themselves “former Catholics.”

The pontiff is an international religious leader and considered the living embodiment of the Catholic Church, but he is human too.

“He’s a little nervous about coming,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in May during an interfaith event in New York, the New York Times reported. “Not that he lacks any confidence in the reception of friendship that he knows he’ll get, but he readily admits he has never been to the United States.”

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