The significance of Pope Francis's visit for non-Catholics

Pope Francis will visit three US cities next week, engaging in both religious and diplomatic activities. But is his visit significant outside of the Catholic Church?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014. Pope Francis will visit the White House next week.

The 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church has been described as humble, outspoken, uncompromising, and controversial. But Pope Francis has proven to be a significant voice, and not just for Catholics.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the pope’s nine-day visit to Cuba and the United States, one that will be filled with both religious services and diplomatic meetings.

During his time in the US, the pope will visit Washington D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. In total, the pope is expected to visit six cathedrals, including St. Patrick's Catholic Church, the oldest church in the nation’s capital. The pontiff will also deliver a multi-religious service at the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York.

For American Catholic adherents and clergy, the pope’s visit offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and hear from the leader of the Church. But Pope Francis’s trip will also emphasize social justice, aimed at inclusiveness beyond the boundaries of religion.

Francis’s planned visits with the homeless in the nation's capital, immigrant families in New York, and prisoners in Philadelphia suggest his focus is on economic disparity, immigration policy, and prison system reform.  

“Pope Francis has breathed new life into what I believe is the central mission of our faith: Catholic social doctrine," Vice President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, said in a statement to The Associated Press. Francis "has become a moral rudder for the world on some of the most important issues of our time, from inequality to climate change."

And arguably even more important, the pope has engaged in foreign diplomacy. Presenting himself as moderator between the US and Cuba and hoping to thaw Cold War relations, Pope Francis has urged the two nations to “put a half-century of vitriol and mistrust behind them,” reported The New York Times.

The pope was involved in secret discussions at the Vatican and, in August, sent letters to both Cuban President Raul Castro and President Obama asking them to “reconcile their governments’ longstanding differences.” When the pope meets with Mr. Castro and Mr. Obama, he is expected to further engage in discussions of reconciliation between the two.  

But Pope Francis’s efforts have already led to progress. Castro announced that he will travel to New York to address the UN General Assembly on September 28. This will be Castro’s first visit to the US in over fifty years.

It’s unclear whether Americans will actually heed the pope’s messages next week. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter, warns that people may misconstrue or misinterpret the pontiff’s messages.

“Humans have a marvelous ability to believe that people they like and admire hold the same views as we do,” he wrote. “There is polling data that show many people think that the pope agrees with them on a series of issues when in fact he does not. We easily tune out disagreements and emphasize agreements.”

But regardless, there’s no doubt that thousands are looking forward to his visit, including Aretha Franklin, who will perform for the pope, and Stephen Colbert, who has invited Pope Francis to appear on his CBS late-night TV show.

For the pope, too, this visit holds great significance.

“For me it's very important to meet with you all, with the citizens of the United States,” Pope Francis said in a virtual interview with ABC News. “When I approach people ... it's easier for me to understand them and help them along life's path. That's why this trip is so important.”

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