Six Days in September

July 30 2015 | by

POPE FRANCIS makes his first ever visit to the United States this month for what could turn out to be the most challenging pastoral journey of his two and a half year old pontificate. The packed schedule includes stops in Philadelphia, where the Pope will close the World Meeting of Families, New York, where he’ll address the United Nations General Assembly, and Washington DC, where he’ll make a much anticipated speech to a joint session of Congress. In all three locations the themes contained in his recent encyclical Laudato Sì on the care of creation and plight of the poor are likely to form the backdrop for his meetings with civil authorities, religious leaders and ordinary people in the pews.


In the Oval Office


The Pope arrives in Washington on the evening of September 22 from Cuba, where he’ll be hoping to build on the recent thawing of tensions between the US and its longtime Caribbean island enemy. Just a year away from the end of his presidential mandate, Barack Obama will be keen to highlight this important step towards peace, as well as the warm relationship he’s fostered – despite predictions to the contrary – between his country and the Holy See. The Pope and the President will have a private meeting in the Oval Office, following the official welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, and in both those encounters the Pope will almost certainly raise key questions of religious freedom, poverty, racism, migration and defense of human life that he’ll develop throughout the five day papal visit.


Same-sex marriage


From the White House, the Pope travels to the nearby Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle to pray with US Church leaders, headed by the President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Edward Kurtz of Louisville. The impressive 19th century cathedral, dedicated to the patron saint of civil servants, plays an important role in the political life of the nation: assassinated president John Kennedy’s funeral Mass was held there in November 1963, and each autumn, before the Supreme Court starts its regular term, a special Mass is held to pray for all those in the legal profession. In light of the Court’s recent decision requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriage, commentators will be keen to see whether the Pope will endorse Archbishop Kurtz’s view that the ruling “is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us,” or whether he may use less confrontational language to uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life.

A strikingly different Catholic responses to the Court’s decision came from the executive

secretary of the English speaking conference of Franciscan provincial ministers in the US, Fr. Tom Washburn, who wrote in a blog post: “To the extent that this decision represents the end of discrimination and oppression of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters… we rejoice with them… we understand that civil law is different from church law or theology, and our tradition, as well as the current and long-held theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage, continues to be that sacramental marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But, we also understand the desire of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to find long term, lasting, loving and committed relationships. The Church in recent years has struggled in its attempts to reconcile all of these positions in a coherent way that leads all her children to Christ without making some feel as though they are not welcome within our walls and our communities, or that we desire anything less than a full, happy and fulfilled life for them. What we ask of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters today is this: please, keep struggling with us; let’s continue to dialogue together…”


St. Junipero Serra


Contrasting opinions also surround the first outdoor Mass the Pope will celebrate on the East Portico of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Canonisation of 18th century Franciscan missionary Friar Junipero Serra (1713-1784), known as the evangeliser of the Western United States. This Eucharistic Liturgy will be celebrated in Spanish, the native language of Serra, and millions of people in the Americas. Born on the Spanish island of Majorca, Friar Serra travelled to Mexico with the conquistadors and set up nine missions in what is now the state of California. His work to evangelise the local Indians first came under the spotlight when he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, but it’s been back in the news again recently, with some historians arguing that Friar Serra established a brutal mission system which led to the death of tens of thousands of native Americans through disease, maltreatment and inhumane living conditions. Though documentation from that period shows that Serra cared deeply for his new converts, around three quarters of the 80,000 people baptised in the missions between 1769 and the mid-1830s died from diseases brought by the European settlers. So strong is the sentiment among some native American communities that several California lawmakers have proposed removing a statue of the missionary from the US Capitol which the Pope is scheduled to visit the following day.


Joint Sessions Address


The Pope’s address to both Houses of Congress on Thursday 24 marks the first time a leader of the Catholic Church has ever addressed a joint session of the US’ highest legislative bodies. His words to these diplomats, lawmakers and politicians will be seen as the centrepiece of his message to all Americans, of whatever political or religious affiliation, and there’s little doubt that it may cause discomfort on both the liberal and conservative wings of the deeply polarised nation. Drawing on the vision for just and sustainable development that he outlined in his encyclical, the Pope is likely to insist on the need to balance economic profit and technological progress with care of the environment and concern for the most vulnerable. While embracing his stand on climate change, many Democrats and ‘pro-choice Catholics’ would rather overlook his insistence that environmental concern “is also incompatible with the justification of abortion”. On the other side of the fence, several Republican presidential candidates sought to undermine the science of the papal encyclical even before its publication, and are unimpressed by his warning that “many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. Similarly, many find it hard to swallow his criticism of the free market economy and his conviction that “by itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”


Meeting the poor


Immediately after his keynote speech to the nation’s most powerful people, Pope Francis will underline his ‘preferential option for the poor’ by travelling directly to a nearby charity center run by St Patrick’s parish to meet with a group of homeless people. In a country where statistics show up to 1 in 6 people living below the poverty line, the Pope’s interactions with these individuals will underline yet again that the success of a nation can only be measured in terms of justice and equality for all members of society. Similarly, a meeting with prisoners in Philadelphia and a visit to a school in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York, to meet with children from some of the city’s poorest immigrant families, may focus on the responsibilities of the rich to help those on the margins break the chains of poverty, ignorance, unemployment and crime.


At Ground Zero


In New York, where the papal plane arrives in the afternoon of Thursday 24, the first event will be an interreligious encounter with leaders of the city’s many different faith communities at the Ground Zero memorial to commemorate the more than 2,600 people who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. Here the Pope is likely to highlight the need to educate young people about the shared values of peace, justice and the dignity of human life, stressing again that violence – at home or abroad – can never be justified in the name of God. On the following day, the Pope will also make a brief visit to the Park Avenue synagogue, where he’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, the document which transformed the Church’s relations with people of other faiths. In light of a recent agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine, this meeting will also be keenly scrutinized for any comments the Pope may make about Israeli politics and the lack of progress towards a lasting ‘two-state’ solution to the conflict in the Holy Land.


UN Address


The big event on the Pope’s agenda on Friday morning will be his visit to the United Nations headquarters for the opening of the 70th General Assembly, where numerous government leaders from around the globe will gather to sign a Sustainable Development Agenda for the period 2015-2030. Here again the Holy Father is likely to link the environmental threats facing the planet with a responsibility to support the poorest peoples and nations who are already suffering the most from rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. Laudato Sì stresses that it is the richest nations that have benefitted most from the burning of fossil fuels to develop their economies, and that they therefore have the lion’s share of responsibility to pay for the changes to a low carbon economy. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, from Pope Paul VI who first addressed the world body half a century ago, Francis will also focus on the need to promote justice and peace through integral development and a greater global solidarity, especially with the millions of migrants fleeing poverty or persecution and conflict.


VIII World Meeting of Families


On Saturday 26 the Pope moves onto the final leg of his trip, travelling to Philadelphia to visit the historic sites where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where the American Constitution was adopted by the nation’s founding fathers. During a colourful encounter with Hispanic and other immigrant communities, the Pope will reflect on the principles of religious freedom in the same location where Abraham Lincoln raised the Independence flag and from the same lectern that the former president used to deliver his famous Gettysburg address on the principles of equality and freedom at the heart of the new democratic nation.

However the highlight of the papal visit to Philadelphia will be the conclusion of the VIII World Meeting of Families, taking place just days before the start of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which opens in the Vatican on October 3; the evening prayer vigil and Sunday Mass that the Pope will lead at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will send a clear message about the importance of family life as the foundation for a healthy society. The giant boulevard can hold up to a million and a half people, making this concluding Mass a particularly joyful and memorable celebration before the Pope’s departure from the United States on Sunday evening. 

Updated on October 06 2016