Pope Francis has never visited the United States until now, and unfortunately, his journey will be far too short to even begin to comprehend the vastness and immensity of this country. Even so, in the brief time that he is here, there is much he can learn firsthand about the fourth largest Catholic population–and the largest Catholic minority–in the world.
Pope Francis knows that America is a rich and powerful nation, but he will finally see in person why this is so. He will see the boisterous clamor of vendors hawking tee-shirts and bumper stickers along his parade routes. He will see the family-owned businesses that donate a portion of their profits to the Church. He will see the ordinary people who struggle to make ends meet but still manage to scrape together some cash for the collection plate every Sunday. Most of all, he will see the generosity of the American people who support worthy causes great and small everywhere from the family next door to strangers far abroad.
I wish that Pope Francis could see our national parks with millions of acres of pristine undefiled wilderness, protected forever from human despoilation. I wish that Pope Francis could see the herds of bison in the Dakotas that have been brought back from the brink of extinction. I wish that Pope Francis could see bald eagles, California condors, and peregrine falcons soaring high through the air. I wish that Pope Francis could swim with manatees and see leatherback sea turtles laying their eggs by the light of the moon on a protected seashore.
I wish that Pope Francis could see old churches built by poor immigrants that are filled with young families seeking all that is good and true and durable about the Catholic faith. I wish that Pope Francis could see new churches being built as parishes must expand in order to celebrate the Holy Mass with growing congregations. I wish that Pope Francis could see the restoration of sacred art and music that has accompanied our surge in young men and women called to holy orders and religious life.
What Pope Francis will see is the excitement and energy of the Catholic Church in America. On his itinerary, he will see the work of our charities, our schools, and our ministry to prisoners. He will see the engagement of the Church in American civic life when he makes history by addressing Congress in the same chamber where the House of Representatives voted Friday to end funding for the largest provider of abortions. He will see an active faith that is fighting to uphold the dignity of all people from the unborn, to the poor, to the sick, to criminals, and to the elderly, not only in they eyes of the law, but in our works of spiritual and corporal mercy.
Pope Francis is coming to America at a difficult time in our history. Our society is grappling with profound economic and demographic challenges, our leaders are fomenting racial and ethnic discord for political gain, and our government is corrupt and lawless. Despite all this, Pope Francis will see a Catholic Church that is hopeful and optimistic about the future, because America is an exceptional nation founded on the freedom of religion as the bedrock of our society upon which everything else stands.
It is altogether fitting and proper then that Pope Francis will end his journey in Philadelphia and will see the place where the Declaration of Independence was enacted. Our founders’ statement of the intrinsic worth and dignity of all people has special importance to Catholics as we have always been a religious minority in this country, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
While he is here, Pope Francis will see that this is the key to understanding everything about America. These words are truly alive in our hearts. We are a nation of seekers, adventurers, explorers, and pioneers. As American Catholics, we are a pilgrim Church in a nation of pilgrims. Just as we are commissioned by our Lord to spread the joy of the Gospel, so too we are commissioned by our laws to the eternally unfinished work of citizenship. While he is here, Pope Francis will see this work in action.