The Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released Pope Francis’s official schedule for his September trip to the U.S. this morning. His trip will include visits to the the White House, Congress, and the U.N. But it’s his other stops that will highlight Francis’s vision of being “a poor Church for the poor.” In his six-day trip, the pope will visit the homeless in Washington, immigrants in Harlem, and prisoners in Philadelphia. If Francis’s trip to the U.S. looks anything like his previous overseas journeys, it will be these encounters with the excluded—not his 18 speeches and visits with the political and cultural elites—that will touch the heart of the American people and, God-willing, transform our nation.
Some of the most lasting images of Francis’s papacy include mourning the immigrants who drowned off the Italian coast of Lampedusa, visiting the slums of Rio, and praying with the street children of Manila.
After Francis’s Manila visit, Cardinal Luis Tagle said that the pope inspired that Filipino people to go “to the peripheries, to prison cells, to hospitals … to bring the light of Jesus.” Many Catholic leaders in the U.S. hope for the same. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., has even launched a campaign asking local Catholics to rededicate themselves to service in advance of the pope’s visit.
Pope Francis will likely ask more of Americans during his September visit. The church, Francis argues, “has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbours, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked.” Or as Francis says more bluntly: “A Christian who is not a revolutionary today isn’t a Christian.”
The success of Francis’s trip cannot be measured by increased service hours. Such reductionism misses the pope’s radical dream for our nation. When Francis visits the homeless, immigrants, and prisoners he’ll likely be arguing for an entirely new way forward for the church in the U.S. and the entire American people. It’s simple: Francis wants our nation to look more like God’s dreams for the world. What does this look like? It’s a place where “enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed,” as Brandon Ambrosino writes.
This vision doesn’t just belong to Francis, but to Jesus Christ himself. In fact, in the Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that the nations will be judged by solely by how they treat “the least of these.” It’ll be this radical, uncomfortable message that Francis will carry with him from the existential peripheries to the places of power in the U.S. And if Jesus is right, everything depends on our response to his crucial challenge.