Pope Francis is now on his 10th foreign trip since his election in March 2013. This week-long journey (Sept. 21 to 27) takes him first to Cuba and then to the United States and the United Nations and is widely considered “the big one” of the year.
He began his global travel last January with a second trip to Asia, visiting Sri Lanka, a mostly Buddhist country, and the Philippines, the continent’s most populous Catholic country. In June he made a one-day visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state on Europe’s periphery that is still recovering from war.
Then in July he returned to Latin America to visit three countries on its peripheries: Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. At the end of November, he will go to Africa for the first time, to visit Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
This first pope from the Americas is universally recognized as a profoundly spiritual and humble man, a true follower of Jesus with unlimited love and passionate concern for the poor, the migrants, people who are suffering, those on the peripheries of society and the excluded.
In two and a half years as leader of the Catholic Church, he has shown such an extraordinary ability to express God’s love for people in concrete and original ways that he has inspired Catholics worldwide and gained the admiration and respect of millions of followers of other religions and even of those who profess no faith. After two decades of experiencing dismay, shame and anger at the sexual abuse and other scandals in their church, Catholics are again feeling proud to belong to the church he leads, “a church that is poor and for the poor,” a nonjudgmental church that serves as a “field hospital.”
Recognized as the world’s leading moral authority, also because of the authenticity of his own life, Francis has become a powerful advocate for the countless millions of voiceless poor people on all continents and is taking prophetic stances on issues that directly touch their lives, like climate change, poverty, human trafficking, immigration, corruption, war and the arms trade. Moreover, he is emphasizing the urgent need for an economy that puts people, not profit, at the center, an economy with ethics that seeks to provide them with jobs and a dignified life.
He comes to the United States proclaiming that the poor are at the heart of the Gospel and affirming truths that are not only central to the church’s social teaching but are also an enduring part of the American heritage: devotion to the common good, religious liberty, freedom itself and economic vitality. But he also comes as one who challenges those elements of contemporary society that contradict Catholic social teaching and distort the best traditions of the nation’s heritage.
Pope Francis comes to embrace all the people of the United States and is likely to encourage them to renew their devotion to family life and their understanding of the demands of solidarity as well as the responsible use of their global power.
As we have read in his programmatic document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and as he spelled out clearly in the encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” this Jesuit pope from Argentina is calling Christians to a new simplicity of life and a depth of spirit that replaces materialism, hyper-individualism and the pursuit of constant pleasure with an integrity that knows what it is to sacrifice, to live in compassion and solidarity, to work for the common good, to care for creation, to show mercy and to attempt to pattern our lives after Jesus himself. His radical message is clear, simple and firmly rooted in the Gospels, which he never tires of encouraging people to read.
The first Latin American pope is likely to communicate such concepts in his talk to Congress, when he addresses the representatives of the people of the United States, and in his address to the United Nations, where he will speak to the world’s leaders. And since every papal visit is first and foremost a visit to the local church, one can expect him to challenge the American church to be more missionary, to be a church that includes, not excludes people, to be a church that puts the poor at the center of its attention and knows how to show mercy, to be a church in which faith trumps ideology.