Pope Francis arrives in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to kick off a six-day American tour in which he’ll meet the president, address Congress, speak to the United Nations, headline star-studded celebrations, lead thousands in prayer and visit with immigrants, prisoners and the homeless.
Outspoken and reform-minded, Francis has taken on controversial issues in the early years of his papacy, and he’s likely to hold forth on a number of them at stops in the nation’s capital, New York and Philadelphia. The issues include many that are fiercely debated in the United States: immigration, climate change, sexuality and capitalism itself.
Here are the places where Francis is most likely to make news.
Canonization of Junipero Serra
On Wednesday, Francis will make a saint of 18th century missionary Junipero Serra, who spread Christianity through the West, converting thousands of natives in what is now California.
The pope has called Serra “the evangelizer of the Western United States” and a “founding father” of the country. But critics say the canonization, to be performed at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, will weaken Francis’ reputation as a champion of the powerless and undermine his 2014 apology for colonizers’ sins against the indigenous people of the Americas.
Like Francis, Serra was influenced by St. Francis of Assisi, who celebrated poverty, nature and the environment. But many Native Americans say he destroyed their ancestors’ traditions and culture, spreading disease and enslaving converts. Serra supporters counter that he saved natives from Spanish soldiers.
Some scholars theorize that Francis’ choosing Serra for sainthood is a way of teaching Americans about their own painful treatment of Native Americans and blacks — and to nudge the country toward adopting a more sympathetic view of immigrants.
Address to Congress
On Thursday, Francis will become the first pope to speak before a joint session of U.S. Congress, where he may hammer at a number of divisive issues.
One is climate change. Francis has made it a priority, calling on world leaders to rally in a fight against global warming. His efforts culminated in March with the release of an official policy statement, known as an encyclical, that blamed a materialistic, wasteful society for the destruction of the environment. Many Republicans protested the pope’s inserting himself into the debate; at least one has announced plans to boycott the speech.
Francis may also seek to expand or clarify his earlier remarks about the dangers of capitalism. In July, during a trip to South America, he said a culture of profit-chasing marginalized the poor and damaged the earth.
The pope is also expected to raise the issue of immigration, a cornerstone of his papacy. He has repeatedly called for America and other countries to be more welcoming of migrants and refugees.
On any of those topics, Francis could draw a divided reaction from members of Congress.
Speech to the United Nations
Friday will bring Francis to New York, and the United Nations, where the General Assembly will convene. Unlike the speech to Congress the day before, his address to the U.N. will be directed at world leaders, and will address global issues.
Not surprisingly, Francis is expected to call attention the thousands of migrants and refugees who are risking their lives to flee war-torn Middle East and Africa for Europe and the West.
Francis, who has endorsed a U.N. conference on climate change scheduled for December, will also likely press for environmental reform in his General Assembly speech.
Visit to East Harlem Catholic school
The Vatican has said that it chose East Harlem for Francis’ Friday schedule because it was a convenient distance from Madison Square Garden, where he’ll lead a mass later in the day. But East Harlem also happens to be a neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty and a large immigrant population — a place that fits Francis’ sensibilities. The neighborhood is also majority Hispanic, which currently constitutes more than 40 percent of the American Catholic church.
He’ll stop at Our Lady Queen of Angels, run by the Archdiocese of New York and adjacent to public housing projects. He’ll meet with students, most of whom are poor, and members of a Catholic Charities-backed soccer league, most of whom are immigrants and refugees.
New York’s Catholic schools are in a pinch: the archdiocese has closed 60 of them in the past five years. So the visit can be seen as a show of support for a struggling system.
Speech at Independence Mall
On to Philadelphia, where Francis’ itinerary on Saturday will include a procession to Independence Mall, attended by some 40,000 people. He is expected to address religious freedom and immigration.
Americans are struggling with both issues right now. Congress can’t make up its mind how to handle people who enter illegally from Mexico. The United States is preparing to take in thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and the Middle East. The Supreme Court’s June ruling that same-sex marriage was legal sparked a backlash from conservatives who say the justices are infringing on their right to oppose them on religious grounds.
Francis may choose to frame his remarks on the mall as guidance on those moral and political quandaries.
Visit to prison
One of the pope’s last stops before returning to Rome on Sunday will be the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the largest prison in Philadelphia. Francis, who advocates for an end to mass incarceration and opposes the death penalty, will arrive in the United States as criminal justice reform emerges as a hot political topic.
In July, President Obama toured of a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma, calling for an overhaul of sentencing rules. Politicians on the left and right joined calls for a retreat from the harsh policies that made the United States home to the world’s highest incarceration rate.
Francis’ prison visit could be seen as support for those reforms. He’ll meet with about 100 prisoners and family members in the facility’s gym and accept a chair built by inmates.