WASHINGTON — Asked to describe his expectations for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Church’s first Latin-American pope will come as a “pastor and prophet.”

But Archbishop Kurtz was cautious about speaking for the Pope or discussing the likely impact of a historic visit that will span three cities and include secular and religious venues, beginning with the White House and ending with a Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

“We need to allow Pope Francis to speak for himself,” Archbishop Kurtz told the Register.

That would be reasonable guidance for any papal visit. But Pope Francis’ tendency to speak off the cuff and dispense with formality adds a wild card to a high-stakes visit that has stirred hope and excitement, but also defies hard predictions.

He arrives on Sept. 22 in Washington, where his schedule includes presiding over the canonization Mass of Blessed Junípero Serra, the Franciscan friar who founded California, and an address before Congress — the first ever for a pope.

During his speech to U.S. lawmakers, he may press for immigration reform and possibly speak out against abortion and income inequality.

In New York Sept. 24-26, the Pope will address 190 world leaders at the United Nations to present a holistic approach to sustainable-development and climate-change issues that is anchored in Catholic social teaching. Francis, with the aid of his encyclical Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), could inspire the global body to overcome institutional inertia and ideological battles that have stalled 20 previous efforts to secure a climate-change treaty (see interview, page 14).

 

World Meeting of Families

The capstone of Pope Francis’ trip will be the closing of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where he will be the chief celebrant at an open-air Mass for 1 million people.

“He will join us as a pastor who comes to be present, to love us as Jesus would love us and to call us to a deeper conversion through an encounter with Christ in our daily life,” said Archbishop Kurtz.

“To the wider community, he will call us to a deeper understanding of the common good and the need to use our resources and gifts to serve others.”

Throughout his visit, the Pope is expected to return to key themes that have defined his pontificate, including his denunciation of a “throwaway culture” that discards the vulnerable and degrades the natural world.

“He addresses the powerful and the poor in a way that says to the powerful: ‘You have much to learn from those who live without,’” said Archbishop Kurtz.

But Archbishop Kurtz did not spell out how the Pope will likely register his concerns on issues like immigration reform, income inequality or the danger of redefining marriage in a way that could resonate on Capitol Hill or at the United Nations.

For now, the bishops’ conference’s president has called on the faithful and the media “to make room for the full message of the Holy Father and not to quickly politicize what he has said.”

That could be a tall order.

 

‘Media Megaphone’

With Washington in campaign mode and the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October just days away, everything the Pope says will be grist for political spin and commentary, from within and without the Church.

Robert Royal, the author, commentator and editor of The Catholic Thing blog, told the Register that the Pope and his allies must strive to make sure his message is heard above the din of the “media megaphone” that often frames his statements and directives in a partisan way.

To complicate matters further, the Obama administration is poised to unveil a number of policy initiatives timed to the papal visit, according to Politico

A meeting with Obama and an address before Congress will test the Pope’s dual role as the Vicar of Christ and a head of state.

“My biggest concern is that President Obama — ‘the abortion president’ — will use the Holy Father to advance his agenda,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told the Register.

The pro-life congressman said he hopes the Pope will offer “a profound call to holiness and righteousness and unambiguously affirm the centrality of protecting the human person’s right to life.”

A group of Democratic lawmakers have asked the Pope to speak out on income inequality, among other topics, and Michael Novak, the author and theologian, told the Register that he hopes the Pope will engage the U.S. system of economic freedom and wealth creation.

“The Pope has said the poor always get poorer. But that doesn’t explain how many Americans came from poverty generations ago but aren’t poor now,” said Novak, who noted that the experience of the poor in Argentina was very different.

However, Kenneth Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, has suggested that immigration reform is the policy issue most likely to draw explicit papal support.

“I think he’ll call us to continue to engage with it [the world], don’t throw any walls up around our nation, don’t revert to isolationism,” Hackett told the Associated Press in August.

 

Immigration Reform

Diana Richardson-Vela, the president and CEO of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL), said many of her group’s members would welcome a “direct papal message to government leaders on immigration reform.”

Vela also predicted that the presence of a Latin-American pope, who will present Blessed Junípero Serra as a model for the faithful, will inspire more Latinos to become leaders and volunteers in their parishes and Catholic institutions.

She noted that some CALL members see the “papal words of compassion and mercy as the most critical part of his message, because it emphasizes personal conversion and conversion of families. Our youth are leaving the Church, and that is their biggest worry.” 

John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, echoed Vela’s hopes.

“Pope Francis has drawn the attention of young people (and old people) to the Church,” Garvey told the Register.

“But as for drawing them into active participation in its life — that is something that requires our cooperation. I mean parents and teachers; and, of course, young people themselves. Expecting the Pope to [pull] that off by himself is like putting your faith in diet pills.”

 

Laudato Si

In fact, the Pope’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, is designed, in part, to challenge the corrosive power of secular currents that pull the young away from their faith and create a false choice between love of God and neighbor and care for the natural world.

It draws the needs of the family and the poor into the very center of global debates on income inequality and climate change, and its core themes will shape the Pope’s message to the United Nations.

Pope Francis will likely “speak to the integral ecology he spelled out in the encyclical, where he showed the inner connection between the ecology of the Earth and ‘human ecology,’ beginning in the family,” said Margaret McCarthy, an assistant professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.

“The Holy Father has written that it is the very same logic — the ‘technocratic paradigm’ that looks at nature as ‘something formless, completely open to manipulation’ (Laudato Si, 06) — which is operative in the destructive stance towards the natural world and the human world,” McCarthy told the Register

Thus, the Pope warns that a desire to manipulate persons, rather than receive them as a gift, can lead to “violence against the most vulnerable” (120) and the current attempt to “cancel out sexual difference” (155), McCarthy added.

If the Pope does reiterate his encyclical’s central themes at the U.N., he will offer a stark choice to the world leaders assembled at the global body.

At a fundamental level, the papal message is a call to conversion.

“‘[T]here can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself” (118), writes the Pope. Comments McCarthy, “And that renewal depends on an openness to God.” 

The Pope’s supporters at the U.N. believe his moral authority could spur world leaders to secure new goals on sustainable development and embrace a climate-change treaty that will be the focus of a Paris conference in December.

Pope Francis is also expected to exhort his audience to find political solutions to end the civil war in Syria, which has forced many to flee their country and embark on a dangerous journey for safe haven in Europe (see World page). In this context, the Pope will likely call for special protections for religious and ethnic minorities. 

Whatever the political impact of the Pope’s U.N. address, Archbishop Kurtz told the Register that it would be a mistake to discard the Holy Father’s holistic vision of “integral ecology” and focus on specific proposals.

“The Pope described his encyclical as a contribution to Catholic social teaching,” the bishops’ conference’s president said. “If it is understood as apart from that, it will be co-opted by one group or another.”

 

Pastoring Families

At the World Meeting of Families, which follows shortly after the U.N. address, the Pope is expected to give more weight to Catholic teaching on marriage and the family.

His recent Wednesday audiences reflect his signature approach to a catechesis on marriage and family that offers plain speech, warm encouragement and a smattering of paternal scolding.

“It is urgent today to reinforce the bond between the family and the Christian community,” said Francis during his Sept. 9 Wednesday audience.

“Sometimes families draw back, saying that they are not up to the measure. ‘Father, we are a poor family and also somewhat unhinged,’” he noted, in a reference to one of the many reasons he has heard for a family staying away from church.

But he dismissed the excuses: “The Lord never arrives in a family without doing a miracle. Let us recall what he did at the Wedding at Cana.” 

Janet Smith, a moral theologian, said she expects to see the Pope’s distinctive and engaging pastoral style on display at the World Meeting in Philadelphia, but also during his low-key encounters with Catholic schoolchildren, undocumented immigrants and prison inmates.

Smith noted a recent ABC 20/20 program that featured Pope Francis speaking with young people in the United States, saying she was struck by his approach.

Recalling the Pope’s exchange with a struggling single mother, Smith noted that “he took a difficulty in her life and then showed that she dealt with it in an amazing way that was ennobling.”

Smith would like the World Meeting of Families to send a message to the synod that families need “marriage enrichment, help educating their children in the faith, natural family planning and help understanding the importance of fatherhood.”

 

Unscripted Actions

Smith acknowledged that she was disappointed by the Pope’s silence on the recent legalization of same-sex “marriage” in the United States. That said, she expects to be surprised and inspired by his handling of hot-button issues during his visit.

She noted the recent papal directive that authorizes all priests to absolve the sin of abortion during the Jubilee of Mercy as a striking way to help the faithful and the public deal with a painful subject (see page 9).

Yet, whatever unscripted statements and gestures the Pope makes during his visit, his first two and a half years as Vicar of Christ have prepared Church leaders to be inspired and to maintain their equanimity.

“Every morning, our Holy Father gives a homily, and it is the same Scripture that I pray on,” said Archbishop Kurtz, “yet there is always a new angle that is a surprise — not a shock, but wow! I will be looking for that during his visit.”