Like many, I am filled with joy and excitement for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States. Popes don’t visit as tourists. They travel to strengthen and support the Catholic faithful and to provide a powerful witness to all people. These pastoral visits are a deep tradition, and he is walking in the footsteps of the modern popes who came before him in that regard. Each visit brings moving moments. More importantly, when you look back over time, you can recognize the fruit that invariably springs from them.
Pope Francis comes as a pastor–our chief pastor–to be among his people. As a pastor, being near to and lifting up others, particularly those on the margins, clearly gives him energy! It’s contagious. The Pope is also here as a prophet, and, like the prophets of old, is calling us to lasting conversion and change. Pope Francis regularly urges us to joyous, generous service in and through Christ. If we want to be disciples, we must bear the signs of our commitment: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). The Pope reminds us that our love of God, encountered deeply in prayer and the sacraments, must impel us to expressions of loving care for one another.
I have seen firsthand the extensive efforts in Washington, New York and Philadelphia (and at our own Bishops’ Conference) to prepare for and welcome our Holy Father. So many people are anticipating this visit, and that’s true of people of all faiths. I should mention that his visit can be viewed live on www.usccb.org for those who cannot attend an event. (Selected events also can be seen on our local Faith Channel; see here for details.)
The Pope’s main purpose in coming to the United States is to take part in the World Meeting of Families. Since December, Pope Francis has devoted his General Audiences to catechesis on the family. His reflections are quite wonderful. He expresses so well God’s profound and enduring plan for marriage and family. God’s mercy and loving protection reaches out to everyone. For couples, living out the beauty of marriage in family life is difficult, but it can transform the world around us. Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen families and learn from one another about how to weave the truths of our faith into the very fabric of our daily living. That’s no easy task. I am very encouraged by the impressive schedule and the catechesis developed by the organizers of the World Meeting of Families.
Pope Francis has chosen moments during his journey that emphasize the universal call to build solidarity and communion. In his encyclical, Laudato Si (LS), the Pope wrote clearly about how everything is connected. While we seek to protect our common home in the face of ecological crises, we must demonstrate a genuine care for one another on all fronts. We must defend life from its first moments, and protect and support vulnerable persons all along the way. Pope Francis will be speaking directly to very powerful and well-known persons in our nation and world. He will also encounter very poor persons, those who may go through their entire lives without ever being noticed or treated, even in basic ways, in accord with their God-given dignity. This striking juxtaposition is not a contradiction. No person is so powerful that he or she may be excused from hearing the cry of the poor. Likewise, no person is insignificant such that he or she can be thrown away. Each of us has a profound role to play in the drama God unfolds around us. We need one another to fulfill our calling, to be “one single human family” (LS, 52).
I think the moments when the Holy Father visits Catholic Charities in Washington and the correctional facility in Philadelphia will be just as poignant as his addresses before Congress and the UN. The USCCB has long-advocated for our poorest sisters and brothers as well as for those affected by a criminal justice system that most people now admit requires reform. We are extremely grateful that these stops are on the Pope’s schedule.
The Church and the faithful in the United States serve those on the margins both domestically and internationally. Pope Francis is outspoken about the need for religious freedom everywhere that permits people to live their faith in word and action. Catholics are called to engage in the public square, and the Pope’s itinerary emphasizes the importance of the Church speaking directly into the needs of our world. We do this to bear witness to the sacred dignity of the human person, as well as to ensure that the faithful can serve in ways that reflect their beliefs, beliefs that find their source in the person of Jesus Christ. As the Pope visits three cities that have served as a US capital at one time, these concerns have real resonance.
We are on the eve of a powerful experience with Pope Francis’ upcoming visit. I pray that our hearts and minds will be open to the activity of the Holy Spirit during his apostolic journey.
Originally published in L’Osservatore Romano