By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
When Pope Francis arrives in the United States for the first time on Sept. 22, Americans who welcome him will include more than his Roman Catholic flock. The pontiff’s six-day American itinerary is peppered with stops designed to deepen connections across boundaries of faith, culture, and politics. And while most Americans will not come anywhere near him, many nonetheless expect to celebrate his visit with displays of ecumenical unity.
“As much the papacy can be viewed as something that divides Christians, I think it also very much has the potential to be something that unites Christians,” says the Rev. Jonathan Mitchican, rector of Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. “The pope, one way or the other, is arguably the most important public Christian in the world. And I think his visit has the potential to energize not just the Catholic churches in this area but all churches in this area.”
En route to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis will make Washington, D.C., his first stop. He will meet at the White House with a delegation that includes the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, president and founder of Interfaith Power & Light, which promotes renewable energy and lobbies Congress to take action on climate change.
After visiting with Catholic groups and addressing a joint session of Congress, he will set off for New York, to speak at the United Nations and preside at an interfaith service at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The Rev. Victor Austin, co-chair of the Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue in New York, will attend the solemn 9/11 ceremony.
“What I actually expect is an opportunity to meet and talk informally to a lot of people while we wait for the pope to arrive, and then to bear witness together,” says Austin, theologian-in-residence at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan.
As Pope Francis traverses the East Coast, events designed to coincide with his visit will draw people from various spiritual traditions, and not just in the metropolitan areas he visits.
In Massachusetts, for instance, they plan to attend viewing parties at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst and St. Mary’s Parish in Longmeadow to watch the pope address Congress. In Northampton, a public forum featuring a panel of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish voices discussed his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home.
Image: Pope Francis laughs while meeting with media during his visit to the United Kingdom in 2013. • Catholic Church in England and Wales/Flickr