When Pope Francis comes to Washington, D.C. for his visit to the United States, he will be making a number of historic and personal “firsts.” Here are five first time events that Americans will see from Pope Francis in the nation’s capital.
1) Pope Francis’s visit to Washington will be the first time he offers the Mass in the United States.
Unlike his predecessors St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis had never visited the U.S. before his election where he became the 265th successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome.
St. John Paul II twice visited the U.S. before becoming Pope in 1978. The first time was in 1969, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was visiting with Polish-American communities across the United States. The second time was when he attended the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia.
Benedict XVI likewise had also visited the United States several times as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before becoming Pope in 2005.
St. John Paul II made 7 trips to the U.S. as Pope. Benedict XVI only made one papal trip (2008), making Francis the tenth time a Pope has visited the U.S. Blessed Paul VI made the first papal visit, traveling to New York City to address the United Nations in 1965.
2) Pope Francis is holding the first canonization of a saint on U.S. soil.
When Pope Francis canonizes Blessed Junipero Serra on Sept. 23 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, it will mark the first time that a saint has been canonized on U.S. soil.
Pope Francis’s canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra is following less than a year after the first beatification took place in the U.S. On October 4, 2014, the U.S. Catholic Church saw the beatification of Sister Miriam Teresa, a native of New Jersey, take place in Newark. Benedict XVI had reformed the beatification rite in 2005 to recognize holy men and women at the level of the local church.
3) Pope Francis is canonizing the first Hispanic saint in the U.S.
Blessed Junipero Serra will become the first canonized Hispanic saint for the U.S. on Sept. 23. For Hispanic Catholics, this marks an incredibly joyful occasion where the first Hispanic saint for the United States is canonized by the first Hispanic Pope from the Americas in a Mass offered in Spanish. There is palpable excitement in the Hispanic community, which comprises close to a third of the 620,000 Catholics within the Archdiocese of Washington.
Pope Francis has recognized Blessed Junipero as a “founding father” of the United States — California’s major cities originally grew around the missions founded by the Franciscan priest and built by the California Indians he evangelized — and will likely get to see the saint’s statue in the Capitol building.
4) Pope Francis is celebrating the first papal Mass at the National Shrine.
Blessed Junipero Serra’s canonization will be the first time that a Pope has celebrated a Mass at the National Shrine basilica, which is the largest Catholic church in North America. The Mass is technically taking place on the Basilica’s grounds, not within the basilica church itself — approximately 3,000 seminarians and novices will be inside during the canonization — in order to accommodate the 25,000 ticketed guests who will be in attendance. More than 250 bishops and 1,000 priests will be participating.
Both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have visited the basilica. When Benedict XVI came to the U.S. in April 2008, he held a solemn vespers service at the National Shrine, but not a Mass. The papal Mass was held instead at Nationals’ stadium to accommodate approximately 50,000 Catholics in attendance.
5) Pope Francis is the first pope to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
The Pope’s speech is historic for the United States and the Catholic Church for a number of reasons. On occasion, Congress has invited foreign dignitaries to give an address to the elected representatives of both Houses gathered in a joint meeting. The first such dignitary invited was King Kalakaua of Hawaii in 1874 and the most recent was Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister. Both Winston Churchill and Benjamin Netanyahu hold the record: each addressed Congress three times.
This is the first time ever that a Pope has had this opportunity. When the Pope enters the House chamber, he will be escorted on the floor to the rostrum by a bipartisan group of Catholic lawmakers — there is also a strong possibility that a number of Supreme Court justices will attend (six out of the nine sitting justices identify as Catholic).
It also represents a major milestone for the Catholic Church, as the idea of a pope speaking directly to Congress would have been unthinkable 50 years ago when Paul VI made the first papal visit to the U.S. Many protestant leaders had objected to the idea of a Catholic as president on the basis that he would take direction from the Pope. Catholic leaders today have noted the difference.
House speaker John Boehner, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, personally extended the invitation for Pope Francis to address Congress. The Speaker’s spokeswoman Sarah Swinehart explained to reporters in D.C. previously that the Pope’s acceptance of the invitation fulfilled the Speaker’s dream of the past 20 years to get a pope to address Congress.
Exit Fun Fact: When Pope Francis steps in the Capitol, he will be the most popular man in Washington among arguably the least popular people in the country. His poll numbers have dropped according to Gallup to a 59% approval rating, fueled in part by political conservatives’ and liberals’ dissatisfaction. St. John Paul II’s poll numbers rated higher throughout his papacy.
However, the Pope’s 16% disapproval rating is something Congress with its 14% approval rating would envy. All the reason for leaders of both parties to make sure that Congress avoids a partisan spectacle when the Pope delivers his address. The nation and the world will be watching.