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What To Expect On Pope Francis' First Visit To U.S.

Pope Francis has won wide acclaim in the United States for his compassionate approach to thorny problems and his warm embrace of the poor and struggling. But that doesn’t mean that he’s fully in sync with the American Catholic Church.

Many American bishops are much more conservative than this pope, and many lay members don’t share Francis’ concern with climate change and the plight of migrants.

Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd speaks with Michael Higgins, vice president for the Office of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University, on just what to expect out of Pope Francis’ visit.

Interview Highlights

On how Pope Francis will be received during his first U.S. visit

I think he’ll be received as a celebrity — as someone who already has electrified the nation, or at least the media. And people are drawn to his personality, he has charisma to burn.

The U.S. is seen as an icon of capitalism, is that in opposition to Pope Francis’ message?

In many ways, it is. Certainly he is critical — and has been consistently — of a consumerist mentality, of a throwaway culture as he calls it. You have to remember too that as a Latin American, as an Argentinian, he’s lived within the shadow of the national security state. He’s aware of both the shadow side of American life — its imperialism, its consumerism. And so in many ways, America has represented for him, a kind of distant, remote, but not altogether friendly reality.

How will he manage that message in the states? 

I think he’ll do it with his characteristic cordiality. The pope is very much a man of style. He understands the importance of gesture. He departs from the text — I mean, this drives his handlers crazy. He enjoys a scrum. He makes a point of departing from the norm. I think people are going to be very attentive to the gesture, the spark, the spontaneous remark. I think in that way he’s very different than his immediate predecessors.

A New York Times and CBS poll says that 8 in 10 Catholics approve of the direction Pope Francis is taking the church. What’s he doing right with Americans? 

I think what he’s communicated to Americans is a sense of resiliency. He’s moved away from any kind of doctrinaire persona, any kind of strict sanction-driven priest, to one who is primarily a pastor. This has been the thrust of his whole ministry, ever since he became an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires way back in the 1980s. This is a man who has actually changed as he’s moved up the ladder as he’s assumed different kinds of ministries.

His ministry now is the ministry of the universal pastor, the ministry of Peter. I think he’s very conscious of the need to move the church towards a form of acceptance and adaptability, which doesn’t water things down, but puts the merciful face of Jesus, first, and the strictures of the law, second.

Many Americans are reminded of the child sex abuse scandal with the pope coming here. Is that the biggest disconnect with Pope Francis and Catholic Americans?

I don’t think so. I think he’s moved on that brief, perhaps more aggressively than his immediate predecessors … Pope Francis has established a committee of secretariat, he’s appointed specific people, including lay people — a psychiatrist from Britain, a survivor from Ireland of sexual abuse. He’s actually made more inroads than most … and also he’s fired bishops over this which is virtually unprecedented.

Three million Catholics have left the U.S. Church since 2007. What is the state of American Catholicism today?

Complicated. Colored. Variegated. Fragile. You could use any of those words to describe American Catholicism, but there’s another word, I think that we hadn’t used in a number of years, and that is energized. …The approval rating of this pontificate is really quite high. And that has not been the case for a long time.

For a number of Catholics, Pope Francis has energized the church. For others of course, he’s introduced new fissures, new dividing lines because they see his pastoral priorities in conflict with the theological and moral certainty of his immediate predecessors. My sense is it’s to a great degree the style of the person. He’s an individual who recognizes that the power of what we call kerygma, or the message of salvation, is best realized in the context of the person. And so all the emphasis you find on this pontificate are repersonalizing rather than relying on edict and censure.


  • Michael W. Higgins, professor of religious studies and vice president for the Office of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University.

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Pope Francis waves to a crowd gathered on St Peter's square at the Vatican on September 16, 2015.         (Vincenzo Pinto/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves to a crowd gathered on St Peter's square at the Vatican on September 16, 2015. (Vincenzo Pinto/Getty Images)

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