Pope Francis Visits US, Plans Historic Address to Congress

The arrival of Pope Francis in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday afternoon marks the fourth time a pope has visited the U.S. In another historic turn, Francis on Thusday will be the first pope to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

In addition to the nation's capital, Francis is scheduled to visit New York and Philadelphia during his six-day visit. Pilgrims from around the country are flocking to the East Coast to see him, but what some see as his progressive stances are drawing criticism from other corners of American Catholicism.

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Joining "Chicago Tonight" for a discussion on the pope's historic visit during a time of change for American Catholics is Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear Pashman; the Rev. Donald Senior, president emeritus of the Catholic Theological Union; and Dan Cheely, director of Evangelization for the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest and host of "The Dan Cheely Show" on Relevant Radio.

Pope Francis arrives in Washington D.C. and is greeted by President Obama.Pope Francis arrives in Washington D.C. and is greeted by President Obama.

A 'genuine human being'

The Rev. Donald Senior says there’s always a lot of interest when a pope visits, but that Francis’ first trip to the U.S. brings with it a heightened level of excitement because of his impact on the public over the last couple of years. “He has a genuineness that touches a lot of people, even those who are not in tune with everything he has to say,” Senior said during a call Tuesday. “They understand that underneath, he is a deeply Christian and genuine human being.”

Senior says that while some people may see the pope’s focus on issues like poverty and environmental stewardship as political moves, he’s not a politician. “People may draw those conclusions, but I think he’s addressing those issues from a gospel point of view. He’ll speak his mind. He’ll do it civilly, and sometimes subtly. But I think he’s a very strong and direct person.”

Nor does the pope care much about any political backlash over the visit to Cuba he made prior to his arrival in the U.S. Senior says he traveled there simply as a pastor visiting a Catholic community. “He’s aware of [the political implications], but he’s going to go where his mission takes him. I think a lot of people in our country, especially in this season where everybody is trying to score points, are looking at it through a political lens. I think the pope is looking at it from a gospel lens.”

Conservative backlash

Some of the backlash against Pope Francis has come from everyday Catholics as well as politicians, but the Chicago Tribune’s Manya Brachear Pashman says that’s to be expected. “There’s conservative backlash against this pope like there’s been liberal backlash against other popes. It disappointed a lot of progressive Catholics when Benedict was elected. Those divides in the church are not anything new.”

When Francis makes his historic address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Pashman is interested to see whether he brings up the subject of immigration – and whether it has any impact. “There’s been an impasse in Congress regarding immigration reform. The House will not call a vote. A lot of people believe the votes are there but it needs for be called for a vote.” Pashman’s also curious to hear the pope’s message at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, especially in advance of next month’s synod on the family that Francis called.

Keeping the family together

Dan Cheely says that politicians who are upset by what the pope says might have too narrow a perspective. “There’s an old saying: to a carpenter, all the world is lumber and nails. To people who are really involved in politics, they can pull a bite out of one of Pope Francis’ talks that doesn’t seem that amenable to whatever one’s political affiliation might be.”

Cheely says Francis is focused on getting people to relate to one another simply as fellow human beings. “He’s not really an intellectual, he’s not really a theologian. We can best understand him as being a pastor. And a pastor has to – if he’s a good one – be kind of a father. He’s thinking about, how do we keep this family together?”

Pope Paul VI is the first pope to visit the U.S.Pope Paul VI is the first pope to visit the U.S. A brief history of papal visits to the U.S.

October 1965: Pope Paul VI is the first pope to visit the U.S. His visit includes a stop at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. 

October 1979: St. John Paul II makes his first of seven visits to the U.S., stopping in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Des Moines. His final visit is a trip to St. Louis in January 1999.

During each visit, John Paul meets with a U.S. president.

  • 1979: Jimmy Carter, Washington, D.C.
  • 1984: Ronald Reagan, Fairbanks, Ala.
  • 1987: Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles, Calif.
  • 1993: Bill Clinton, Denver, Colo.
  • 1995: Bill Clinton, Newark, N.J.
  • 1999: Bill Clinton, St. Louis, Mo.

April 2008: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI celebrates his 81st birthday at the White House with President George W. Bush.

Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Did you know that Pope Francis is on Twitter? See what he's tweeting about.

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