Dear Blog Readers, this is the second part of my two-part series on the Pope’s trip to Cuba and the United States. (see also Part I – Pope Francis- Revving up for Cuba). As with the first post, it is a bit of a long plod through the schedule and themes of the trip that I wrote mostly to prepare myself. Feel free to scroll through to what interests you or skip it altogether.
September’s trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia will be the first time Pope Francis has visited the US in his 78 years. It is a bit strange for a well-educated, well-travelled man, who served for many years as a Cardinal in Latin America, never to have set foot in the United States. A Vatican official told me recently that perhaps the Pope has a “healthy mistrust” of the US that is typical of many people in Latin America.
Others have told me that the Pope added the trip to Cuba so that he could arrive in North America with a wind from the South at his back. Clearly this Pope envisions the Vatican as a geo-political player and why not exercise influence in his own hemisphere? He has jumped headlong into the debate on migration in Europe, has tried his hand at peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and has made headlines around the globe for his strong stance on climate change. He was behind the rapprochement between the US and Cuba; what else might he have in mind for the Americas?
During his time in the US, the Argentinian Pope will make many speeches in both English and his native Spanish. I have heard that the Pope has been brushing up on his English with an American who works at the Vatican, but I have not been able to confirm this.
When asked if the Pope is likely to use his trip to hammer the United States on everything from consumerism to the death penalty and the environment, a Vatican official said to me, “Are you kidding? It is going to be a love-fest.”
Vatican officials confirm that the Pope will definitely touch on his preferred themes – environment, immigration, poverty, capitalism but he is not going to be pointing fingers at anyone.
In typical Francis fashion, he will not just frequent the halls of power, but will also reach out to the “periphery” adding to his appointments at the White House, Congress, and the United Nations, meetings with prisoners, homeless people, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, children and immigrants.
Pope Francis is the first Latin American Pope and his worldview is clearly shaped by his origins. He took the name Francis after Saint Francis of Assisi and has done everything in his power to reach out to the poor and marginalized. But it is also important to remember that Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and brings with him a background that clearly reflects his Jesuit training and service. He is tough, shrewd and determined as well as being an action-oriented risk taker. The tough determination with which he has tackled the corruption and incompetence he found in the Vatican Curia is a clear indication that he doesn’t shy from confrontation and difficult decisions.
The Pope will arrive on a flight from Cuba at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington in the late afternoon on September 22. He will go straight to the Apostolic Nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue for the night. Francis’ packed schedule does not start until the next morning when he heads for a 9:15 appointment at the White House. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will greet the Pope on his arrival and bring him to the South Lawn for an official ceremony. Both the Pope and the President are expected to speak. Following the ceremony on the South Lawn the Pope and the President will take the elevator up to the first floor for a private meeting in the Oval Office.
I covered a similar ceremony during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington in 2008 with George W. Bush. It was a lively, colorful event with a band (US Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drums Corps) dressed up as revolutionary soldiers marching up and down the lawn playing “Yankee Doodle”, a singer performing Happy Birthday for the Pope (It was Benedict XVI’s birthday) and warm comments by both the Pope and the President. On that occasion there were thousands of invited guests including young children, which made the event special. Perhaps it will be similar on this occasion.
President Obama and Pope Francis have met before, in March 2014 at the Vatican. Following that private meeting in the Pope’s library the two leaders exchanged gifts. Obama gave the Pope a box of seeds from the White House vegetable garden to be planted at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. Castel Gandolfo, a half hour from Rome, has a small farm which provides some fruit and vegetables for the Papal table. Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden is famous, but there won’t be time for the Pope to visit it.
After their first meeting, the Pope gave Obama a copy of his first Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudium Evangelii” – “The Joy of the Gospel”. The Apostolic Exhortation is a no-holds-barred attack by the Pope on the global economic system. In it he writes, “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”
“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
For more on that meeting see my blog post: President Obama in Rome
A White House Statement in March described the upcoming meeting between the Pope and President as a conversation between two leaders with common goals.
“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues, including caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”
Following his meeting with the President, the Pope will travel in an open motorcade from the White House around the National Mall after which he will switch to a closed car to go to The Cathedral of Saint Matthew in Washington to meet with the Bishops of the United States.
There are many occasions during this trip when the Pope will travel in the Popemobile. Such travel is always a security risk, not just when he travels outside the Vatican, but even during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. Vatican gendarmes always run along beside the Popemobile watching for threats. It is hard to forget that Pope John Paul II was shot while going around St. Peter’s Square in a Popemobile. Journalists often debate whether Pope Francis sometimes might wear a bulletproof vest. Personally, I highly doubt it. Pope Francis never seems minimally worried for his own safety and often throws himself into the crowd, kissing babies, touching those who reach for him, with little concern. He leaves it to others to worry about his safety and believe me, many, many people will be worrying about protecting him during this trip.
In the afternoon he will go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for a Mass and the Canonization of the Blessed Junipero Serra.
Junipero Serra was a Franciscan philosophy professor on the island of Mallorca in Spain who left everything to go work evangelizing Native Americans in California and Mexico in the 1700s. His mission was to spread the Gospel and baptize the Native Americans. He was paid both by the Spanish government and the Catholic Church. He established 21 missions across California. There has been some controversy surrounding the canonization that I won’t get into in this post, but if any one is interested in more information, check out this fascinating interview by Jesuit journalist Thomas Reese with Professor Robert Senkewicz author of “Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary” (Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?)
The next big event for the Pope, and one of the key moments of the trip will be Thursday, September 24th when he becomes the first Pope to address a joint session of the US Congress. Although there are not likely to be any real surprises in the themes addressed by Pope Francis during his speech to the Congress, apparently there has been some discussion about what the protocol will be. Will the members of congress break into applause and jump to their feet as they do during the State of the Union Address, or will they listen quietly and applaud warmly at the end? Certainly, there are plenty of things the Pope could say that many in Congress disagree with, for example, look at his last encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si.”
In “Laudato Si” the Pope did not shy away from denouncing economic powers like the US writing, “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.” The Pope said that the earth “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He denounced the “throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” There has been a fair amount of criticism of the Encyclical from Republicans in the United States with Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush and others saying the Pope is not a scientist and should not meddle in politics.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate for President of Cuban origin, has been highly critical of the Pope-finessed rapprochement with Cuba, and leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said also been critical of the Pope.
According to Crux contributor Christopher Hale, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has a “big Pope Francis problem. His values, attitude, and policies stand in profound contrast to the 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff.”
It is impossible to pigeonhole Pope Francis and it would be a huge mistake to say his views are closer to the Democrats than the Republicans. His positions on a range of issues stretch across Republican and Democrat lines.
The environment and the inequalities wrought by capitalism are at the top of his agenda. He has also been extremely vocal on the importance of welcoming migrants and recently asked every parish in Europe to take in a migrant family. He is likely to encourage a more humane policy towards migrants in the US.
Pope Francis is against abortion, but has just made new rules in which it will be much easier for priests to absolve the sin of abortion during the jubilee year. He is against the death penalty. He recently denounced producers and exporters of weapons “that have on them the blood of innocents.” He has recently changed the rules on marriage annulments to make them faster and free. The Pope has opened up a debate in the Vatican on whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion. He has said “who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality but has maintained the Catholic Church position that marriage is between a man and a woman.
It remains to be seen which of these topics is he likely to raise in Congress.
From the Halls of the Capitol Pope Francis will zip away to St. Patrick Church where he will go to a Catholic charities center. He is going to meet there with hundreds of homeless sitting at tables under a tent having lunch. These are the kinds of events that the Pope clearly enjoys, casually mixing with ordinary people and chatting. This is not the first time he has met with homeless people.
In the afternoon he will leave for New York City. His first event in New York will be Vespers in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with priests, nuns and seminarians. Obviously, Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio will be there, eager to get their photo-op with Pope Francis.
Friday, September 25th begins with a speech to the UN General Assembly. Pope Francis is the fourth Pope to speak to the United Nations. Pope Paul VI gave a speech there in 1965, Pope John Paul II in 1979 and again in 1995, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
Pope Francis is expected to hammer home his points about the environment and discuss world peace. He will speak both in English and in Spanish.
The Vatican State is a Permanent Observer at the United Nations and not a full member. Just this week the General Assembly approved a resolution allowing both the Palestinian State (also a permanent observer) and the Vatican to fly their flags together with the 193 member states at the United Nations. The Vatican’s ambassador to the UN Archbishop Bernardito Auza said that the Vatican would not raise its flag before the Pope’s speech on September 25th but said it might at another point in the future.
From the UN, the Pope will go to Ground Zero for an inter-faith event.
In the early afternoon the Pope will visit the Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. This student body makeup of this school is 70 percent Hispanic and 22 percent African American. The Pope will greet the children there and speak to them in Spanish.
Following this meeting, the Pope will take part in a procession through Central Park which is likely to be one of the most colorful moments of his trip. The city of New York is giving away tickets to get access to the route. The procession will make its way from Harlem down to Madison Square Garden for a Mass with thousands of faithful that will wrap up the New York leg of his US visit.
Saturday, September 26th Pope Francis travels to Philadelphia for the 8th World Meeting of Families. This meeting was the original purpose of the Pope’s trip and slowly his agenda was expanded to include the stops in Washington, New York and the visit to Cuba. The last World Meeting of Families was in Milan, Italy in 2012.
Again, Pope Francis’ papacy has called into questions many issues regarding the Church and social doctrine on topics such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality, reproduction, and communion. As soon as Pope Francis returns from Philadelphia the second round of the Synod of Bishops which will take place from October 4-25th. Bishops will gather in Rome to take up again the issues they began to discuss last year in what was a contentious meeting with conservatives and progressives church leaders airing their differences as they tried to hammer out church positions for the future. Key topics are whether divorced and re-married Catholics should be allowed to receive communion, the church’s approach to homosexuals, and policies towards couples living together out of wedlock. Will the Pope address these issues at the meeting in Pennsylvania? Many people in the church will be watching closely for any comments from the Pope that might indicate positions he would like the Synod to adopt.
His first public event in Philadelphia will be a Mass with Bishops, Priests and Nuns at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. He is expected to speak in both English and Spanish and will be sure to have a special greeting for the sick and handicapped attending the Mass.
His next big event will be at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. He will arrive there in his Popemobile to meet with tens of thousands of people from the Hispanic Community and other immigrants. I think it is at this event that we can expect the Pope’s strongest comments on immigration urging the United States, as he has urged European nations and the Catholic Church, to open their doors to migrants and refugees.
Offering refuge and support to migrants has been a key theme for Pope Francis since the first days of his papacy. I covered his first trip outside the Vatican to the Italian island of Lampedusa where thousands of migrants arrive on boats from Africa every year.
Speaking to reporters aboard the Papal plane returning from the Philippines, the Pope said that he would like to show his solidarity with Mexican immigrants by entering the US across the Mexican border. “To enter the USA from the border of Mexico would be a beautiful thing, as a sign of brotherhood and help for the immigrants,” he said.
The Pope has also urged the US to welcome unaccompanied migrant children.
The final event of the day will be a celebration for families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Organizers are expecting 1 million people to attend this colorful prayer vigil which will also include music and dancing.
On his final day in the US, the Pope will visit prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. Again, reaching out to prison inmates has been a recurring theme for Pope Francis. Shortly after he was elected Pope Francis went to a juvenile prison and washed inmates’ feet on Holy Thursday. He has repeated that gesture every year, and has visited prison inmates on many occasions.
At the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the Pope will meet dozens of 18 to 21-year-old prisoners. He will give a speech in Spanish before walking among them and greeting them individually.
He will then meet with prisoners’ families and a group of women prison guards.
The last big event of the visit will be the Mass for the World Meeting of Families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. Organizers said there could be 1.5 million people there. Again, the Pope will speak English and Spanish.
The Pope leaves the US from Philadelphia at 8pm on Sunday, September 27th. Then it will be a long night for us. During return trips the Pope comes back to the press area of the plane and usually spends over an hour taking questions from journalists.
Since some blog readers have asked, here is a little more information on who those press conferences work.
For the inflight press conference there are a few rules. First, we are asked by the Vatican to keep the questions to the current trip. Then we have to divide into language groups – English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. The first few questions are given to journalists from the country just visited by the Pope, for example, a Turkish journalist when he visited Turkey, a Korean journalist when he visited Korea. After the first few questions, they begin the rotation in the language groups. Each language group has to prepare 2-3 questions and choose 2-3 journalists to ask them. The Pope takes one question from each group and then starts the rotation again.
There are clear differences in the attitudes and styles between groups. The English group begins batting around questions early on the morning of the final day and usually comes up with a long list of questions that gets whittled down. The English language group drafts written questions for the chosen journalists to ask and they often end up being long, complicated four part questions, which I often find do not lead to strong, interesting answers. I have heard Italians making fun of the English language group for being obsessed with questions about homosexuality and unable to go beyond that topic.
The other national groups seem to me to be more laid back about the questioning. They choose journalists to ask a question and leave them to ask what they want making sure the questions do not conflict.
I have also heard members of the English language press making fun of the French for what they say are cloying questions eager to please the Pope and the press office, but not particularly penetrating or insightful.
Personally, I have found the most interesting questions come from the journalists who are not usually on the Papal plane, who are from the country he just visited.
During the inflight press conference, everyone is required to stay in their seat, except the person who is asking the question who is invited up in front of the Pope in the mid-section of the plane. I am lucky because as a pool producer with a cameraperson we are given seats that are close to where the Pope stands when he speaks to the press.
When the press conference is done, everyone frantically goes over their notes, tries to decide which were the most newsworthy comments. We then hammer out an embargo agreement– usually we give ourselves at least one hour after the Pope’s plane lands before we can report what was said.
I have to download the material into my computer and edit out the key soundbites. This takes a lot of time and whether or not I get it done depends on how long the flight is, and how long my computer battery lasts. On many occasions I have walked through the Rome airport, computer open, still downloading the material. I have also stood in the airport terminal with my computer plugged into the wall, talking to my editors on the phone as the cameraman waits to get our bags off the conveyor belt.
We then start filing while in the taxi heading back to the office.
On this trip we are expecting double inflight press conferences – one on the Santiago, Cuba- Washington, D.C. flight, and one on the Philadelphia – Rome flight.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.