hen Pope Francis arrives in Washington, D.C., on September 22nd, it will not only be his first papal visit to the United States; it will be his first visit ever. He’s 78 years old, but he spent most of his life in his native Argentina, as a Jesuit priest and later cardinal. Aside from required trips to Rome for official church business — he always insisted on flying economy —the former Jorge Bergoglio rarely left Buenos Aires. His one substantial vacation for pleasure, a trip to the Holy Land in 1973, was not well-timed: He arrived just as the Yom Kippur War was breaking out and so spent most of his visit confined to his Jerusalem hotel room.
In Washington, Francis will meet with President Obama at the White House. He will also travel to New York — where he will speak at the United Nations General Assembly, celebrate a mass at Madison Square Garden and visit the 9/11 Memorial — and Philadelphia, where he will visit Independence Mall and inmates at a local prison and appear at a global Catholic conference called the World Meeting of Families. And he will become the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, thanks to an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, a devout Catholic. The New York Times described the papal visit as a “long-held dream” of the speaker, who has been sending feelers to Rome for the past two decades. Francis is “not afraid to take on the status quo or . . . say what he really thinks,” Boehner told the Times. “So I’m sure the pope will have things to say that people will find interesting, and I’m looking forward to his visit.”
edBoehner’s enthusiasm might have slightly dampened had the pope been able to enter the U.S. the way he’d originally hoped — via Mexico, crossing the border as a show of solidarity with immigrants. The idea was ultimately nixed because of logistical and scheduling difficulties. But the fact that it was floated at all is yet another illustration of Pope Francis’ brilliant understanding of his own power as a disrupter. During the two and a half years of his papacy, the unscripted, often radical words and actions of the pope have thrilled believers and nonbelievers alike, on a scale no contemporary religious leader other than the Dalai Lama has approached. “People who’ve thought of the church as the incarnation of evil at worst or the Easter Bunny with real estate at best have been telling me, ‘I love your pope!’ ” says Michael Sean Winters, a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter. And yet many conservative American Catholics — in particular, politicians — have found themselves unmoored by Pope Francis’ profound tonal shift.
For generations, the religious right has been allowed to define the terms of the debate when it comes to the intersection of faith and American politics, placing an emphasis on culture-war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage that tended to work against progressives. So it’s been awkward, to say the least, for Republican Catholic officeholders to be faced with a pope who, six months into his papacy, told an interviewer that the church should not be “obsessed” with “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” He wasn’t changing doctrine, but the top-down shift in emphasis was striking — “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Francis said — and with his actions, he went even further. In January, for instance, he reportedly met with, and hugged, Diego Neria Lejarraga, a transgender Catholic man from Plasencia, Spain, after Lejarraga wrote Francis a letter. Though a local priest had called Lejarraga “the devil’s daughter,” at the meeting, Francis told him, “You are a son of God, and the church loves you and accepts you as you are.”