Pope Francis will stand on American soil for the first time at 4 p.m. local time on Sept. 22, when he steps off an Alitalia plane at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. Sources close to him say he has been looking forward to this moment, when at last he can make direct contact with the American people and open his heart to them.
His visit is arousing phenomenal interest and has given rise to attempts by commentators to reduce the man and his message to the political, ideological and cultural categories that characterize public discourse among Americans in general and among Catholics as well: Is he a liberal or a conservative? Do his social teachings validate more the Republican or the Democratic political agenda? Is he more aligned with the thinking of John XXIII and Paul VI or that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Does he embrace or reject American culture, society and economic life and, for that matter, the American people themselves?
I believe that those who seek validation from the pope’s visit of any particular viewpoint framed by such categories will be deeply disappointed. Hence, I think it’s important to understand that the centerpieces of Francis’ message and witness, like those of the Gospel itself, escape all such classifications in essential ways.
To begin with, Pope Francis embraces wholeheartedly the clear doctrinal tradition of the church, while emphasizing that at the heart of that doctrine is the affirmation of the God of mercy, whose first act toward each of us is a loving embrace precisely in the face of our own failings. While such emphasis has been warmly welcomed by believers worldwide, it has caused self-declared custodians of orthodoxy to subtly query his commitment to church doctrine, while overlooking the fundamental fact that it is he—as successor of Peter—not they, who is the guarantor of faith and unity in the church.
Like his Polish and German predecessors, Francis proclaims a social doctrine that bisects the current political divide in American society and affirms respect for the life and dignity of the human person at every stage of existence, an affirmation that is neither liberal nor conservative in the contemporary political lexicon and is not a selective morality.
This first Jesuit pope is a man of extraordinary inner peace but also a shaker and mover in the church and the world. He is a truly free man, not bound to any particular interests except those of Jesus. He continues to remind the whole church that “the poor” are at the heart of the Gospel and underscores the preferential option for the poor, solidarity and inclusion. He calls for an economy that puts the human person, not profit, at the center and highlights the urgent need to care for “our common home.”
Francis is a man of dialogue, committed to the culture of encounter, who looks for the best in people and is not judgmental. He is a peacemaker and strategist who contributed significantly to the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, tried to break the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and pushes hard for peace in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and other lands.
Some portray him as a maverick, but this misleading depiction fails to understand that Francis is a pope who is ever listening to what the Spirit is saying to the church, and this results in an element of what some call unpredictability or surprise. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, grasped this well during their first meeting and afterwards described Francis as “a man of extraordinary humanity, on fire with the Spirit of Jesus.”
This is the pope who is about to visit the United States. He comes as a pastor, a humble pastor, who never puts himself above anybody. He comes to reach out and embrace not just Catholics but all Americans, whatever the color of their skin, ethnic origin, religious creed, political allegiance or economic condition. He sees each one as first and foremost a child of God, loved by Jesus, a brother or sister whom he loves too. That is his starting point.
His personal decisions to speak to Congress and at Ground Zero are the clearest testimony to the fact that Francis wants to encounter and embrace all the people of the United States in their pain and their ideals, their aspirations and their failures, their greatness and their love.