DURING THE course of the past 50 years, papal visits to the United States have been the subject of remarkable interest and recognition in the life of the church and wider society. Pope Paul VI’s historic journey to America in 1965, Pope John Paul II’s numerous travels, beginning with Boston in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2008 all captivated the attention of our socially and religiously pluralistic country. The upcoming visit of Pope Francis will surely continue this history of public respect and enthusiasm, of which Americans can be very proud, and also will be singular in its significance.
Following the tradition of his predecessors, Pope Francis’ primary focus will be pastoral. The Holy Father comes to pray with us and to share the Gospel message that calls us to the service of people who are in need; those lacking the most basic provisions of life, those who seek meaningful and productive employment, those who yearn for understanding, acceptance, and peace. It is not surprising that the pope’s itinerary in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia includes visits to a soup kitchen, a prison, and a Catholic school in Harlem that seeks to lift children and families to the promise of a better future.
During his visit, Pope Francis also has three important and substantive engagements concerning our civic life and national identity. President Obama will welcome him to the White House, where they will exchange greetings and participate in a private meeting. Later that day, the pope will address a joint session of Congress, a first in our nation’s history, and in New York will address the United Nations. In each of these settings, we can expect the pope to address some of the most pressing issues in the world today.
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly held up a wide range of moral and political concerns that have particular significance for the United States’ position of international leadership. He has been a powerful voice challenging the world to respond to the needs of immigrants displaced by political and economic turmoil. In recent weeks, the Holy Father called for the Vatican and all European parishes and religious communities to welcome refugee families from Syria as their circumstances became more critical, and President Obama has established our country’s commitment to this relief.
The pope has spoken of the need for substantive economic change to provide meaningful inclusion for individuals and nations at the edge of the global economy. He has drawn our attention to the increasing numbers of individuals and families who are experiencing instability and face an uncertain future, casualties of technological and economic forces that have overtaken their place in life, their sense of purpose, and their dignity. He has addressed the recent history of extreme disparity in wealth, calling for public and private policies that motivate people to strive for success and allow them to enjoy the benefits of their work without discarding those who might be deemed unproductive or not useful. The pope has pointed to the connections between human poverty and environmental degradation, consequences of a lack of care and respect for all of God’s creation.
The prompting for Pope Francis’ visit is the World Meeting of Families, which takes place in Philadelphia, the first time this event has been held in the United States since established by Pope John Paul II in 1994. The pope has consistently acknowledged the crucial role that families have for the good of the church and society. In his homily at the Mass for the World Meeting, we can expect the Holy Father to hold up the centrality of marriage and children for the progress and well-being of our civilization, and the importance of a society that encourages and supports family life. We can also expect he will affirm the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, emphasizing protection of the unborn and respect for the human dignity of all people at all times, regardless of age or infirmity.
In all that he says and does, Pope Francis never wishes to be the center of attention in personal terms. Before his election to the papacy, he spent each day in humble and selfless service to the needs of the people entrusted to his care. From his office as the spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billon Catholics throughout the world, the Holy Father calls people of all faiths and all people of good will to raise their hearts and minds to see the needs of the world today. His message is always filled with the hope of our potential to come together as a human family, to join in the joys and the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and together to work for a better future for all. Our nation is greatly blessed, even in the midst of our challenges. A prayer that we can share those blessings at home and abroad, striving for a more just and peaceful world, will be at the heart of Pope Francis’ visit to our country.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley is the archbishop of Boston.