Those fortunate enough to see Pope Francis on his visit to the United States, which begins this afternoon in Washington, will know it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one they’ll share with friends and family all their lives. And that feeling will apply to non-Catholics as well as members of the church.
For Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention not just with his position, but with a message that embraces all people with love and forgiveness and understanding that goes beyond doctrine. Indeed, long-time church observers thought from the moment he appeared as pope and asked people for their prayers that his might well be a transformative period in the church’s history.
Francis certainly is not a revolutionary, in that he adheres to and advocates many of the church’s traditional beliefs. But he has cleared the way for the church and its leaders to be more forgiving and more understanding. He has given priests the right to absolve the Catholic sin of abortion. He has acted to make annulment easier.
And he has repeatedly emphasized the need for all to help the poor and disadvantaged. He has preached for humility, for tolerance of those who are different.
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And of late, he has spoken of the threat of climate change and the need to better care for the environment and tied that together with the needs of the less fortunate. A gifted writer, the pope wrote in his encyclical policy on social justice and the environment, “It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
The pope conveys his view of the church’s obligation to involve itself in social issues with his own itinerary in the United States.
Yes, there will be parades and masses. But he will be visiting a school, a charity and a prison. And as he always does, this pope will greet his crowds with kisses and handshakes. He seems particularly touched by children, embracing them when possible, blessing them, kissing them. He makes a special effort with those children who are sick or handicapped.
The pope’s humanity is what has caused him to be admired and even adored by non-Catholics. He is a person without pretense, who chose to live in humble rooms at the Vatican and not the more well-appointed apartment of his predecessors. By example, he is a leader of all, and though he’ll address Congress and the United Nations, he’ll likely admonish them to serve all the peoples of the world. And they will sit up straight when he does.
Pope Francis has attained extraordinary attention since assuming the papacy. Yes, that’s true of all new popes. But in this case, the attention comes as much because of his ideas and his forceful way of expressing them. From Raleigh, hundreds will be going to Washington to see the pope. This is a special day.