Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI became the first pope ever to visit the United States. He came to New York principally to address the United Nations, and he celebrated a mass in Yankee Stadium. Since that historic visit, St. John Paul II made a number of visits during the 27 years that he led the church, and even Pope Benedict XVI made a pastoral visit here.
Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and will visit Washington, D.C., to address the U.S. Congress and to canonize the founder of the California missions. He will also visit New York and address the United Nations, as his predecessors have done.
For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Pope Francis has been a pope of surprises. He was virtually unknown when presented to the world in March 2013 as the first pope to take the name of Francis, recalling the medieval saint of the poor who promoted fraternity among all creation.
Francis is the first pope from America, an Argentinean and the first pope from the Jesuit order. Clearly uncomfortable with many of the trappings of his office, Pope Francis has done everything possible to remain close to the people.
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Millions visit the Vatican each year to participate in masses, services or general audiences with him. He delights in riding through the crowds, blessing and greeting people and continuing his long tradition of rubbing shoulders with humanity.
In his previous travels, Pope Francis has used the media spotlight to illumine situations and people that don't often make the headlines. His first trip outside Rome was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, the site of numerous shipwrecks of immigrants trying to reach Europe.
In Brazil, he visited a slum so notoriously dangerous that it was intentionally left off city maps and when his motorcade took a wrong turn and steered the pope's vehicle into crowds of people, he delightedly rolled down the windows to touch and bless them.
In the Holy Land, not only did he meet and pray with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but he stopped to pray silently at the wall that separates and contains the Palestinian population.
Even before his arrival in the United States, Pope Francis paid attention to the overlooked and underserved in our nation. In advance of his visit, he held virtual audiences with high school students at Cristo Rey High School in Chicago. The Cristo Rey schools are in impoverished areas with few educational resources. The audience included a parish along the U.S.-Mexican border, where the pope interacted with immigrants and heard their stories. There was also a connection to the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.
Pope Francis' visit to the United States comes just after the release of his encyclical letter about the environment. Knowing full well the controversies around global warming, Pope Francis builds on the best Catholic teaching from Scripture and tradition, and he engages science as he pleads for both dialogue and action to save creation from further destruction.
The pope is a strong advocate for refugees and immigrants throughout the world and will certainly enhance the efforts of U.S. bishops who have been calling for comprehensive immigration reform. The pope also knows that his teachings on the economy, which are consistent with his immediate predecessors, are not well received in all segments of the United States. He will nevertheless insist that the economy must benefit all human beings, not just the elite. Pope Francis, always promoting dialogue, is studying the critiques of his teaching in advance of his trip.
Pope Francis has captured the world's attention by his authenticity and genuine humility; his smile reveals the God of compassion and mercy whom he represents and serves. His first visit to the United States is likely to contain even more surprises.