Oh yes, the excitement is building for Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S.! I can hardly contain my own excitement, especially when I see how so many Catholic schools and parishes are preparing for this historic visit. Of course, time is being set aside to watch many of the papal events live, especially the White House Welcome Ceremony, the address to the Joint Session of Congress, and the speech to the United Nations General Assembly. These particular events will happen during the course of the school day, providing thousands of Catholic school students the opportunity to witness history and to experience firsthand the impact that a well-lived faith can have in shaping culture.
Together with school leaders, teachers, and staff, the entire Catholic educational community in the U.S. will be richly blessed by Francis’ message of hope and mercy and by his incredible witness of service to the poor. Masses in Washington, DC, New York City, and Philadelphia are scheduled for after school hours or on weekends, but the Francis Effect should be well under way by then; many people of good will and most Catholics will be linked into their favorite media outlet to catch every word, every gesture, every glance.
What can we do to best prepare for Pope Francis? What might we expect? Three things come to mind.
First, Francis is going to be Francis. We would do well to open our hearts and minds to his message for he is likely to challenge every gathering he addresses. As he does in his daily homilies at Mass at home in the Domus Sanctae Marthae or in public addresses in the Piazza San Pietro, he speaks his mind and shares his heart. He reflects on God’s word and then tries to translate it into concrete action. His Jesuit spirituality and Saint Francis-like lifestyle have been on clear display now for several years, so expect him to speak of peace and justice, of care for the poor, and of care for our common home-the earth. While I would not anticipate him to wade into specific policy prescriptions by speaking about the Iran accord, the Keystone pipeline, or U.S. Supreme Court decisions, no one will have to read between the lines to understand his message. He will speak his heart with joy.
Second, I think it will be important for everyone to listen to the pope’s words or read his speeches, and then prayerfully reflect on his message. I know teachers and parents, pastors and priests, catechists and youth ministers will all be helpful to young people in this regard. It is important work. Many others will fill the airwaves with spin and biased interpretations, likely trying to make the pope into an image of their choosing. Resist taking your cues from the talking heads; listen to Francis himself.
Finally, take it personally. The pope is not trying to change Congress or the United Nations. He is trying to change hearts. By celebrating family life in Philadelphia, extolling the importance of Catholic schools in New York, and canonizing a missionary in Washington, Francis will teach a powerful lesson about love, relationships, and the enduring power of grace. Let’s open our hearts to his message and prepare not just to listen, but to respond.
Join us in celebrating Pope Francis' visit to the United States and in particular his visit to the Catholic school community. Check back next week as well as the week following for commentary and interviews from team members in attendance.