Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
By all measures Pope Francis’s visit to the United States this week will be an extraordinary event. It’s hard to recall a time when the Catholic Church in America has received such a positive media “buzz” throughout both traditional and social media channels. Pope Francis’ personal charisma is largely responsible for the widespread interest his pastoral visit is generating even before he sets foot on American soil.
Pope Francis will be in the United States from Sept. 22-27. This visit will include a number of “firsts.”
It will be this pope’s first-ever visit to the United States. He will officiate at the first-ever canonization in the United States, when he canonizes Saint Junípero Serra, the 17th century Franciscan evangelist and missionary who established the California missions.
For the first time, a pope will address a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol. And, that’s just the beginning of an incredibly full schedule that will bring the Holy Father from Washington, D.C. to New York City, where he will address the United Nations, and finally to Philadelphia where he will celebrate the closing Mass for the World Meeting of Families, which is being held in the United States for the first time.
Pope Francis comes as the head of the Catholic Church to deliver a pastoral and evangelical message that is sure to encourage, challenge and invigorate the faithful, the clergy and consecrated women and men across America. I have no inside information, but we can surely expect the Holy Father to develop many of the principal themes he has been highlighting the past two years when he began his papal ministry.
He will remind the Church that we cannot focus merely on our internal concerns, as great as those may be, but challenge us to go out to the peripheries of society and to be mindful of the poor and forgotten wherever they may be. He has modeled this way of Gospel living by his own personal gestures and simple manner of life.
He will undoubtedly draw attention to the plight of migrants and refugees, both those fleeing violence in the Middle East (including persecuted Christians), and our own migration challenges in the United States and Latin America. He will speak of the global threats to religious freedom, including those here in the United States.
I expect that at some point he will speak about our shared responsibility in caring for God’s creation as he has written about in his encyclical “Laudato Si.” In that encyclical the Pope speaks of an “integral ecology” highlighting the connection between human relationships and the health of the environment. He calls us to transform our relationships with God, with one another and with creation. There are economic implications to this holistic approach to an integral ecology that insists that the human person be kept at the center of economic policies and activity.
Those are my observations only. There will be other themes; he will certainly speak about marriage and the family, and I would be surprised if the Pope does not develop some unexpected themes as well.
Of course, the Holy Father will not be addressing only Catholics through his prepared addresses (and his frequent off-the-cuff remarks). He will have the attention of the world. When the world’s greatest moral authority comes to the world’s most powerful nation, his words and gestures will carry weight and be parsed by analysts and commentators across the social, political and religious spectrum.
This will be an historic visit. I pray that it will be a grace-filled moment for our Church and our nation. Please pray for the Holy Father that he may be God’s instrument of peace and a powerful witness to the joy of the Gospel in our midst.