(Editor’s note: Pope Francis makes his first papal visit to the US in a swing through the Northeast --- Washington, DC, New York City & Philadelphia --- September 22-27, 2015. Upon his arrival, he is greeted at the airport by President Obama, in a change of protocol which typically rolls out the red carpet only at the White House.) …
In March 2013 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the new Pope of Christianity’s Roman Catholic Church, at the age of 76. Francis is a pope of many firsts. He is the first pope from the order of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits), the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years.
On the night of his election, Francis reportedly took the bus back to his hotel with the cardinals, rather than be driven in the papal car, in a style that news coverage has referred to as "no frills." He told journalists that he had chosen the name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, out of special concern for the well-being of the poor. He had previously expressed his admiration for St. Francis, explaining that "He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history."
Francis quickly served notice that he was to be a new kind of pope. He chose not to live in the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace, but to remain in the Vatican guest house, in a suite in which he can receive visitors and hold meetings. He is the first pope since Pope Pius X (1903-1914) to live outside the papal apartments.
At the outset of his papacy, in a hopeful and encouraging sign for ordinary citizens, Francis set out a platform for his papacy in an 84-page document known as an apostolic exhortation. In it he attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny,” calling for an overhaul of the financial system and warning that economic inequality and unequal distribution of wealth inevitably leads to violence. Absent a solution to that problem, Francis said, “no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.” Francis attacked the “idolatry of money,” urging politicians to “attack the structural causes of inequality” and strive to provide work, healthcare and education to all citizens.
Francis also called upon the affluent to share their wealth:
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.
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure,” the pope asked, “but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” the pope wrote, “rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
In June 2015, the pope followed up his papacy directive with a 184-page encyclical, termed Laudato Si, calling for sweeping action around the globe to combat environmental degradation and climate change that he said was due mostly to fossil fuels and human activity.
Anita McBride, executive in residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University's School of Public Affairs, says the excitement surrounding this papal visit to Washington is a "sharp contrast" to the last one, in April 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI huddled with President George W. Bush. McBride should know. Previously, she served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. White House aides at the time feared the pontiff might make sharp public comments about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he did not.
It appears that the times finally may be changing, Pope Francis sounding --- and acting --- very much like progressive leaders in the US who are aligned with President Obama. This bodes well --- not only for the poor --- but also for the spirits of millions of ordinary American citizens and people in developing nations throughout the world.