During his pastoral visit to the United States in September, Pope Francis is addressing several different audiences.
He engages the US Government through meetings with President Obama and an address to the US Congress, and the United Nations through his address to the UN General Assembly.
Perhaps most importantly, he engages American Catholics through attendance at the World Meeting of Families, his canonisation of Blessed Junipero Serra, the apostle to the Indians in the 18th century, and through meetings with the poor and marginalised.
Junipero Serra was born on the island of Majorca just off the coast of Spain, came from a poor rural family, but received a good basic education at the hands of local Franciscan friars.
He decided to become a Franciscan, and took out a doctorate in theology and became a professor of philosophy at a local university.
In middle age, he decided to become a missionary to the Americas, and travelled to Mexico where he played a heroic role in siding with the indigenous people against the Spanish colonists.
Later, he trekked into California following Spanish and Mexican colonists, where he established a number of missions in places which are now major cities, and which bear the names of his missions – San Diego (Holy God), San Francisco (St Francis), Santa Clara (St Clare) and others.
He consistently placed himself and the Franciscan missionaries with the Indians, in conflicts with both the colonists and the military.
Interestingly, he even raised a collection for the Americans in their War of Independence with Britain. He died in California in 1784.
World Meeting of Families
The Pope will also attend the World Meeting of Families, an event which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Philadelphia, where he will be hosted by Archbishop Charles Chaput, an outstanding churchman who is himself of American Indian descent.
One of the interesting aspects of the visit is that this will be the first visit by Pope Francis, the first pope from South America, to the United States.
In part, this reflects his own history as a Jesuit in Argentina, preoccupied with the problems of the people of that country. But it also reflects the fact that he has no deep affinity for American culture, particularly the culture of Coca-Cola and Hollywood which is how the United States is presented in the developing world.
While the Holy Father has expressed admiration for the achievements of the United States, he has also been highly critical of some aspects of American political and economic life.
In particular, he has been critical of the consequences of unrestrained free market capitalism which, despite its capacity to produce goods at levels unseen in history, also accepts extreme disparities of wealth and poverty, and has also triggered economic instability, such as the Global Financial Crisis which was caused by uncontrolled economic speculation.
Many free-market advocates in the US, including Catholics, are dismayed by the Pope’s critique of free market capitalism.
One of the more nuanced critiques was published in the online Fiscal Times, under the headline, “The Pope’s Manifesto could destroy the US economy”, in commenting on his recent Encyclical, Laudato Si (Praise be to God).
It said, “Pope Francis’ encyclical will strike a chord with many who abhor today’s culture of self-absorption, instant gratification, and love affair with new gizmos.
“Many people will sympathise with the Pope’s dismay over declining ethical standards and short-termism, and his concern over evolving techniques in genetics, for instance.
“But, it is impossible to accept the encyclical’s central attack on capitalism and consumerism – or, what we might call progress.”
Pope Francis is a man totally committed to a Christianity based on mercy and compassion, particularly towards the poor and the marginalised.
Pope Francis is also a strong believer in building an economy based on co-operation rather than competition.
One of the most significant challenges in the United States is the prevalence of utilitarian ideas, ranging from a lack of care for the poor and marginalised, to acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. The pope has repeatedly called on Catholics to stand a stand on all these issues.
In the course of the recent migration crisis in Western Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria and poverty in central Africa have flooded into Europe by boat and overland, the Pope has been at the forefront of calls for Europe to accept and welcome the migrants, along with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The United States has undergone a similar process, as millions of people have illegally crossed the Rio Grande into the United States, and are living as illegals in the country, unable to receive social security or health benefits, and open to exploitation.
This is a major issue in the US, with thousands of “illegals” sent back to Mexico every week, while populist demagogues like Donald Trump exploiting their presence for political purposes.
It is certain that Pope Francis will urge the United States to regularise the situation of an estimated 14 million people living illegally in the United States by offering a form of legal residence.
The World Meeting of Families will give the Holy Father the opportunity to reaffirm the church’s teaching on marriage and the family. The emphasis will be on making the family the centre of the domestic church, and re-establishing a Catholic prayer life in the family.
But the Pope is only too well aware that the intact family is also under threat from economic forces which tend to weaken the bonds between parents, and a corrosive popular culture which divides children from parents.
He is also aware of legal threats to the family, including the United States Supreme Court decision to legalise “same-sex marriage” in all 50 American states, an extraordinary decision which parallels its earlier decision to legalise abortion.
The visit by Pope Francis will have long-lasting effects in the United States, and raise difficult issues which need to be addressed.