Pope Francis will meet with inmates in a Philadelphia prison gym, poor migrants at a D.C. church — where he may serve them lunch — and disadvantaged youth at an East Harlem elementary school, according to a working itinerary of his visit this fall to the United States that was shared with The Washington Post.
The itinerary for the trip — the pope’s first to the United States — is not final. The Vatican is expected to release an official version in the next few days, and church officials Friday emphasized that even that version could change before Francis arrives Sept. 22. A person close to the U.S. planning process provided The Post with the itinerary, and a second person knowledgeable of the Vatican team confirmed multiple details of the document.
The working itinerary reveals the pope’s plans to speak repeatedly about the plight of immigrants, including at Our Lady Queen of Angels School and on Independence Mall park in Philadelphia before tens of thousands of people. The Argentine pope will often speak in Spanish during the trip, the itinerary shows, highlighting the origins of the Catholic Church’s first Latin American pontiff and the fact that the U.S. church is one-third Hispanic — and quickly becoming more so.
People have become accustomed to seeing the affable-
looking Jesuit mingling with the disenfranchised, but the trip in September includes appearances at America’s elite power centers: the White House, the United Nations and Congress — the first time a religious leader has ever been invited to address a joint meeting, congressional historians say. The address is both thrilling people who want to see morality preached to members of Congress and worrying others who see it as a dangerous cocktail of religion and politics.
The itinerary is the result of months of lobbying and debate about where the world’s most popular faith leader should go, what he should say and how he should say it. Because of his decisions to come to the United States from Cuba and to accept the congressional invitation, many see Francis seeking to play a more muscular role in global affairs — even if as a pastor.
His decision to release a major teaching document last week about the environment, specifically just ahead of a global meeting on climate change, was seen similarly, as theologians could not recall another encyclical timed to a secular process in that way.
“He doesn’t pretend to be Angela Merkel or Winston Churchill. I think he sees himself as a pastor — but a pastor to the world. I think he is pained personally by the troubles that people experience in the world: exclusion, poverty, migration,” said an American knowledgeable about the planning of the trip. “It’s a moral authority, not a political authority he’s positing. But can moral authority have political influence? Sure.”
Charities and corporations alike have been lobbying for the pope’s time while he is in the United States. Comcast and food services giant Aramark will be sponsoring church events that week. Dozens of shelters, schools and treatment centers and parishes reached out for a visit, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, where church leaders are in the midst of trying to raise $180 million for renovations. He will hold an evening service there, according to the itinerary, and greet New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as hundreds of youth.
The prison he will visit on his final day, according to the itinerary, is the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.
“One guy came up to me in D.C. and asked: ‘Would he bless my boat?’ ” said one American involved in the planning.
Many people interviewed about the pope’s trip spoke on the condition they not be named, as the Vatican has not yet released its official itinerary and they did not want to be seen as disrespecting the process.
However, there has been discussion for months about how the trip might further shape the image of the relatively new pope, and how it might potentially change the church — or U.S. religion in general. Francis, who is 78, may not make a second trip to the United States.
Francis’s decision to accept an invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress — the first extended to a religious leader, congressional historians say — has been well-publicized. The itinerary shows he will deliver at least part of that address in Spanish. The pope is not fully comfortable in English, and those close to the process say Spanish is preferable for a man who likes to speak extemporaneously.
To further highlight Francis’s desire for a more compassionate response to immigration, he considered visiting the U.S.-Mexico border — entering the United States the way a migrant might, or celebrating a moving Mass on the border. But Mexican bishops nixed the idea, some close to the planning say, concerned that Mexico could be seen as a prop in U.S. politics.
Some say they are afraid that new political and policy stops could overshadow the reason Francis agreed to come to the United States to begin with: the World Meeting of Families, a once-every-three-years meeting of the church focused on shoring up church programs and teachings to support the family unit.
“What this does is dilute the focus on the family,” said the Rev. Robert Sirico, a priest who founded the Acton Institute, a faith-based group that promotes conservative policies. “It’s like an American going to Europe for the first time; they think they can see everything.”
Pope Benedict XVI was the one who initially committed when he was still in office to coming to Philadelphia, an event that dovetailed nicely with Benedict’s focus on the breakdown of traditional families. Then he did something no pope has done in centuries: He retired. Progressives were elated when Francis confirmed he would take Benedict’s place.
The inner circle of those shaping the trip is not large. It includes the Vatican’s envoys to the United States and the United Nations, staff from its equivalent of the secretary of state’s office and archbishops of the three cities he is visiting: Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington, Cardinal Tim Dolan in New York City and Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput of Philadelphia. Francis is also said to be very close to Cardinal Sean O’ Malley in Boston and has sought his input on the schedule.
A small group of these men and a few others met in January in Washington, where they had gathered for the annual March for Life on the Mall. In February and March, two advance teams from the Vatican came, including Alberto Gasparri, the papal travel agent.
However, Francis is known for keeping his own counsel. Vatican experts say he carries a little planner and whips it out to make his own dates rather than work only through a secretary.
In a lecture last month, papal historian George Weigel called Francis “the decider — on steroids.” He said, “The filter through which decisions happen [with Francis] is much narrower in this pontificate than in any of its predecessors” for two centuries.
One decision in particular has attracted considerable controversy: the first making of a Catholic saint on U.S. soil. Francis will canonize Junipero Serra, an 18th century priest, during a Mass in Washington. The event is controversial in part because while some praise Serra for being instrumental in bringing Catholicism to the United States, via California, some Native Americans compare his conversion efforts to genocide. Because logistically Francis could not get to California on this trip, the canonization will be held on the East Coast, a part of the country where the church is seen as shrinking and more out of touch.
Thousands have signed a petition calling for the canonization to be abandoned.
Perhaps the most watched event will be the pope’s historic address to Congress. Some Catholics note it has been only 55 years since Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy had to promise not to take orders from the pope. They also note Americans’ deep ambivalence about the blending of religion and politics.
Calls to staffers for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went unreturned, but people familiar with head of state visits to Congress say Capitol Hill offices this summer will be focused on logistics: Which presidential candidate gets close and who doesn’t? How much time should he spend in Boehner’s office and with whom? Will lawmakers stand and clap for lines they support and remain seated for those they oppose? Those are all elements under discussion.
The lobbying for access will continue until the last moment — from politicians, pundits and the many do-gooders for whom a papal moment could mean the difference between closing up or survival for their good works.
“It’s the Good Housekeeping seal, the spotlight, the Olympic gold medal; I’ve had people lobbying me for months,” said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based journalist whose whispersintheloggia blog is a must-read for church insiders. “My whole family, as much as I love them, I keep saying: ‘I don’t think there’s anything I can do for you.’ ”