In September 2015, Pope Francis made his first ever visit to the United States. Arriving at Maryland’s Joint Base Andrews at 4:00 pm on Tuesday the 22nd, he commenced a six-day tour that included appearances in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. This sample essay discusses his U.S. visit, and was the second leg of a North American tour that began in Cuba on the 19th.
The trip marked the seventh official papal visit to the U.S. since Washington established diplomatic relations with the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Rome’s Catholic Church in 1984. In the itinerary published by the Vatican, the trip is referred to as an
“Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Pope Francis to Cuba, the United States of America, and Visit to the United Nations Organization Headquarters, on the occasion of his participation at the Eighth World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia,”
Pope Francis arrives in the U.S.
While flying in from Cuba, Francis was asked to address the question about whether he’s a communist.
“Maybe I have given an impression of being a little bit to the left,”
he told reporters, but added that his concerns about income inequality are consistent with Catholic doctrine (Bailey).
Upon arrival, the Pope was greeted by President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and their families at Joint Base Andrews. After meeting briefly with the President, Francis got into his humble Fiat hatchback: a modest car that would reflect his humble image during the trip.
The Pope’s visit mobilized one of the biggest shows of security of any stateside trip by a foreign dignitary. Even though Francis was not the target of any suspected terrorist plots, safety measures for the duration of his stay were coordinated between the F.B.I., the U.S. Secret Service, and federal, state, and local police.
The 78-year-old Pope’s first U.S. visit occurred at a time of unprecedented secularism in the country, which has seen church attendance plummet and long-held religious traditions crumble away. American society’s move away from the church has been spurred in part by a growing number of scandals involving religious leaders in this country.
Fresh off a three-day visit to Cuba, Francis was reticent about his thoughts regarding conditions in the island nation. Some observers took this as the Pope’s way of upholding the integrity of the talks he helped procure between Cuba and the U.S. after an embargo that lasted more than 50 years.
The Pope speaks at the White House Lawn
On Wednesday the 23rd, Pose Francis was welcomed at a White House Ceremony where he spoke in front of 11,000 attendees on the South Lawn. The issues that he addressed at the 9:15 am event included climate change, income inequality, and immigration. He praised the Obama Administration’s efforts to tackle the issue of global warming, and refrained from speaking about issues on which he’s at odds with the president, such as abortion and gay marriage.
In what some observers interpreted as a rebuke of Donald Trump’s stance on immigration, Francis noted how the U.S. came into existence as a nation of immigrants. Referencing his own immigrant background, he expressed that he’s
“happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” (Peralta and Chappell).
While addressing the topic of climate change, he claimed that there is still a window of opportunity to reverse the destructive course for future generations. To drive the point home, he invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King, stating that “we have defaulted on a promissory note, and now is the time to honor it,” (Peralta and Chappell).
Later that morning, when speaking to American bishops during a midday prayer at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the Argentine-born Francis drew praise for encouraging compassion and tolerance toward immigrants who “drown in the search for a better tomorrow,” (Joseph et al.) He only touched upon social issues when he was among the like-minded, and he only did this in passing while addressing other concerns. Out of all the topics he spoke about that day, the issues that resonated most with attendees concerned the innocent victims of this world; namely the children who die from starvation and bombings.
Later on in the day, Francis spoke before 20,000 at a Mass for the canonization of Junípero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Serra was an 18th century Franciscan who established missions in the territory that would later become the state of California. Afterwards, the Pope made an impromptu visit to Little Sisters of the Poor, where he purportedly voiced support for their opposition to contraception funding in the Affordable Care Act.
Address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol
On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 24, Pope Francis set another papal precedent when he addressed a joint Congressional session at the U.S. Capitol Building. Throughout most of this speech, he focused on issues like immigration, religious persecution, global warming, income inequality, and the death penalty.
Speaking before a Congress that has seen more deadlock over the past three years than at any other time in U.S. history, the Pope implored lawmakers to mend their partisan wounds and take action on issues that threaten the world at large, such as bigotry, greed, and toxic waste. Stating that the country “must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good,” his words came just as the Government—quarrelling over the issue of federal spending—seemed to be on the verge of another shutdown (Allen).
For progressives, the Pope’s speech was a perfect articulation of some of the most important policy agendas of the day. Standing before Congress, Francis expressed a Catholic worldview that’s resolutely in favor of income equality, supportive of immigration, passionate about environmental protection, critical of warfare, and opposed to the death penalty.
At the same time, Francis voiced support for a few positions that are more in line with the American Right, such as the preservation of traditional marriage and the protection of the unborn. Despite his staunchly pro-life stance, the Pope has also advocated forgiveness for women who have already had abortions.
Though both sides of the polarized Congress could glean words of encouragement from the Pope’s speech, commentators concurred that it was the Democrats that came away with a greater sense of vindication.
Meeting with Kim Davis
On the afternoon of the 24th, Pope Francis boarded a flight to New York City for another round of appearances. Before doing so, however, he was involved in one encounter that became the subject of controversy in the days that followed.
Kim Davis—the infamous Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for nearly a week over her refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples—met with the Pope at the Vatican Embassy, though details of the encounter remain unclear. Reportedly, the right wing media darling showed up unannounced with her husband Joe Davis and briefly spoke with Francis after he addressed a small audience.
Despite her attempts to frame the encounter as a personal endorsement, it’s generally held that the Pope greets anyone who comes before him at these meetings, and that he probably hadn’t even heard of Davis before news broke out of their encounter. As stated by Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican, the Davis encounter
“should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects,” (Payne and Burke).
Address before the United Nations General Assembly
On the morning of Sept. 25, Pope Francis addressed the United Nations General Assembly inside the U.N. headquarters in New York City. Once again, he emphasized the importance of taking action on the matter of climate change. According to a translated transcript of the speech, he warned that the ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species,” (Keneally).
The Pope drew parallels between income inequality and the ecological impacts of pollution, and argued that both are consequences of greed in the world.
“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment,” he told the assembly (Keneally).
Francis also voiced concern for the innocent victims of war, terrorism, and drone strikes, particular in the strife-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa. He wrapped his speech with a quote from the epic Argentine poem Martin Fierro, which he used to convey the importance of human bonding.
Further stops: 9/11 Memorial; Philadelphia
Later that morning, the Pope visited tethe National September 11 Memorial & Museum for a multi-religious service, where he greeted the widows, children, and parents of 9/11 victims. Through a lottery, around 1,000 people won tickets to the emotionally-charged event, though Francis had less time for casual interactions that he did at some of the other stops on his visit.
The Pope rounded off his New York stop with a visit to East Harlem’s Our Lady Queen of Angels School, an appearance in a Papal Procession through Central Park, and with an evening mass at Madison Square Garden. On Saturday, Sept. 26, Francis flew to Philadelphia, where he spent the final two days of his trip holding mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, meeting with bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and visiting benefactors at the World Meeting of Families.
Want to learn more about Pope Francis? Read a comparative essay on how he differs from his predecessors.
“Schedule for Pope’s Cuba-US Trip.” ZENIT.org. Innovative Media Inc. 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. “Pope Francis defends his views.” The Washington Post. Nash Holdings LLC. 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Peralta, Eyder and Bill Chappell. “Pope Francis Tells His U.S. Bishops Not To Shy Away From Big Issues.” NPR.org. National Public Radio. 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Joseph, Cameron, Adam Edelman, and Corky Siemaszko. “Pope Francis talks big issues, meets with clergy, and greets Catholics on first full day in Washington.” New York Daily News. Mortimer Zuckerman. 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015
Allen, Jonathan. “Pope Francis addresses Congress: Read the full remarks.” Vox. Vox Media, Inc. 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 13. Oct. 2015.
Payne, Ed and Daniel Burke. “Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis not an endorsement, Vatican says.” CNN.com. Turner Broadcasting System. 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 13. Oct. 2015.
Keneally, Meghan. “Pope Francis: What He Told the United Nations General Assembly.” ABCNews.go.com. Disney Media Networks. 25 Sept. 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.