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This is a historical week not only in the life of the United States of America but for the Roman Catholic Church as well.   This is the first visit to The United States by Pope Francis, and will become the first Pope to address a joint session of Congress. Where it is anticipated that he will touch on several key issues close to his heart and key elements in his papacy, including income inequality, climate change, abortion, the definition of marriage, religious freedom and immigration. The Holy Father also brings a message to Washington that its power and wealth should be used to serve humanity. The Holy Father will also address the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday and an open-air Mass in Philadelphia where 1.5 million people are expected to attend, and he is expected to take part in a Vatican-sponsored conference on the family in Philadelphia.

A highlight of the papal visit in Washington, DC will be a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (the largest Catholic Church in the United States, 10th largest in the world) where the Holy Father will canonize Franciscan friar Junípero Serra.   Fr. Serra  founded a system of Catholic missions where he was ministering to Native Americans.   This will be the first canonization to be held in the United States, and possibly highlight the role and contributions Hispanics have made to the church.

Analysts say the historic trip is simply an extension of his peripheral philosophy. Pope Francis will call attention to the issues he has prioritized all along — aid for the poor, the environment, the margins of society — in an effort to sway the world’s superpower to his side. More than anything else, the pope is hoping to reframe, both for American Catholics and people of goodwill across the country, all of these issues in the contemporary world in a kind of moral dimension.   The U.S. is a central figure in so many of these issues he’s passionate about. He’s going to call on Americans’ conscience. Many see the Holy Father’s visit serves as a strategic platform for him to advance the causes he has been preaching about since he became pope.

The United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, and it is incredibly blessed by God. He also has the advantage that people like him and respect him, and as a result, they’re going to be open to listening to him.     The Holy Father has also been instrumental in bringing both the governments of the United States and Cuba back to the table. Those talks resulted in reopening of diplomatic relations, travel between both countries and discussions on the trade embargo, amongst other matters.

Sprinkled throughout his six-day trip are meetings with the homeless, the hungry and even the imprisoned.   The pope’s visit also is about tending to his own flock, experts say. The United States is home to the fourth-largest Catholic population in the world and is a powerful arm of the Catholic Church.

There is a declining Catholic membership, particularly in the Americas. The U.S. is part of the dynamic of Catholic losses. The pope’s job number one really is evangelization — reaching out to lapsed Catholics and converting new people.” It doesn’t hurt that Francis, a native Spanish speaker originally from Argentina, is especially admired by the Hispanic contingent of American Catholics. His trip is pastoral but also strategic. Between 35 and 40 percent of Catholics in the United States are Latinos. The future of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is a Latino one.

The first Latin American pope has electrified liberal-leaning U.S. Catholics, Democrats and many non-Catholics with a shift in emphasis toward concern for the poor and immigrants and his appeals for action against climate change. But his criticism of unbridled capitalism has unsettled U.S. conservatives.

He’s assured of a warm welcome from millions of U.S. Catholics, and his poll numbers — which would be the envy of any politician — suggest that curious adherents of other faiths and even the non-devout are also eagerly awaiting his visit. In other words, he is highly respected and admired not just by the Catholic faithful, but by others of different religious faiths and tenants.

But the first Latin American pope’s blessings on America could also contain uncomfortable challenges as he addresses a country that encapsulates many of the ills he has denounced as the head of one of the world’s largest religions. Though there are aspects of American life that Francis embraces, he has quickly become known for blunt critiques of contemporary society and global economics, and his criticism — from capitalism to climate change to technology — spans the political spectrum.

Many observers expect Francis to implicitly rebuke Republicans — some of whom deny a link between human behavior and climate change, a topic which he addressed in an encyclical in June — for their reluctance to tackle global warming. The Pope may also wade into the raging debate about immigration in the United States, after warning earlier this year that nations that close the door on migrants should seek God’s forgiveness.

And the gesture Francis will make is by going directly to lunch with homeless people rather than with his congressional hosts after his speech on Capitol Hill will resonate on both sides of the aisle.

He is a walking, talking parable. This is a Pope who looks at the world from the bottom up and from the outside in. I think he brings to Congress and the White House a different perspective than they are used to hearing. And that perspective could be galling for both parties.

The role of the Christian is to comfort the afflicted — of course — but also to afflict the comfortable. We have people who need to be afflicted a little bit, particularly in their outlook towards the poor and the marginalized.

“An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind,” he said at a conference in Bolivia in July. “Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity.”

Kathy Kiefer


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