Rock-star US welcome expected for the ‘people’s pope’

Francis has steered away from rigid Catholicism and set his sights on issues such as climate change and refugees.

Pope Francis
A Manhattan mural of Pope Francis will greet him upon his arrival in New York [Walter McBride/Getty Images]

New York, United States – The pot-holed streets of East Harlem are worlds apart from the majestic colonnades of Vatican City.

But that won’t stop Pope Francis, a self-styled “people’s pope”, who will visit the Latino-dominated area during his first papal visit to the United States, which begins with a red-carpet welcome on Tuesday.

Patricia Cano, 39, a denizen of El Barrio, as East Harlem is known locally, lauds the pontiff for dropping in on a nearby Catholic school in her blue-collar neighbourhood.

“It shows he cares about poor people,” she told Al Jazeera.

The mother-of-two was born in Mexico. What she really wants from the Argentina-born pope is some pastoral guidance for Republican hopefuls of next year’s presidential race who have been bad-mouthing Hispanics.

Patricia Cano wants Pope Francis to tackle immigration reform while in the US [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
Patricia Cano wants Pope Francis to tackle immigration reform while in the US [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

“As a Latina, a big thing for me right now is the elections and people like Donald Trump making declarations about hate,” Cano said of the billionaire candidate, who has called for an anti-immigrant wall along the Texan border.

“Who in this country is not an immigrant?” she adds.

‘People’s pope’

The Bishop of Rome may well oblige. Over six days, he will speak at the White House, Congress, the United Nations, and Madison Square Garden. An open-air mass in Philadelphia on Sunday could draw some 1.5 million worshippers.

At each event, his words will be scrutinised in a politically riven nation that is braced for the 2016 White House race.

Immigration reform is not the only hot potato for the pope. Some of the key themes of his papacy – climate change, inequality, refugees, and traditional family values – are high on the US agenda.

“As a moral leader and a prophet, he has to speak about these things. It’s in his DNA,” Thomas Reese, an analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, told Al Jazeera.

“Being a prophet is part of his job description. What a prophet does is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He comes to speak truth to power.”

The pope touches down in the US with a big win already under his belt: He kick-started the talks that have led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US after nearly six decades of rancour.

In New York, he will be greeted by a 70-metre high mural of himself. Life-size cut-outs are being unfurled, a LEGO model of the Vatican is on show in Philadelphia, and a Bronx bakery is selling “pope cookies”. Also, graffiti painters have declared: “The pope is my friend” on Manhattan’s streets.

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The pope was Time magazine’s person of the year in 2013. A Gallup survey found 76 percent of Americans viewed him favourably in 2014. That figure dropped to 59 percent in July of this year after some Catholics and traditionalists changed their minds.

Graffiti in Manhattan declares 'The pope is my friend' [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
Graffiti in Manhattan declares ‘The pope is my friend’ [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

This may have been because the pope’s message is less reactionary than that of his predecessors. By being less critical of gays, divorce, and women who have abortions, the pope has steered away from rigid Catholicism.

“Some people like to believe that the Catholic Church’s only moral issues are in the bedroom. This pope says no. How we treat the poor, caring for the environment, working towards peace – these are all moral issues,” Reese told Al Jazeera.

While the pope has changed the church’s mood music, the notion of sin stays put. Conservatives and leftists will listen carefully for his words on traditional family structures and the controversy over gay marriage in the US.

This could mean fireworks at his congressional speech on Thursday, Randall Balmer, a religious scholar and author, told Al Jazeera.

“He will say things that are uncomfortable for all politicians. On the abortion issue, he’ll make Democrats uncomfortable. If he talks about capital punishment, climate change, women’s rights, and gay rights, then he’ll make the other side of the aisle uncomfortable,” he said.

Likewise, the pope’s tree-hugging message on the environment, his criticism of unchecked capitalism, and the pursuit of money – what he calls the “dung of the devil” – sound balmy to many American right-wingers.

RELATED: Church-state rapprochement a blessing for Cubans

But the pope’s visit does not stop in the US. On Friday, he crosses over into international territory at the UN headquarters in New York as the opening act to more than 170 world leaders attending summits on ending poverty and other global issues.

The pope is likely to back the UN’s new anti-poverty goals, which will be agreed upon this week. His call to save the planet from environmental ruin, via an encyclical in June, precedes key talks on a new global climate change deal in Paris in December.

He has been similarly outspoken on Europe’s crisis of refugees and economic migrants. The Vatican has taken in a Syrian family that fled the country’s brutal civil war, and the pope says others should open their doors, too.


This issue resonates with the 51.9 million Latinos in the US, many of whom are Catholic and have friends and relatives who struggle with tough US immigration rules. The pope is the Spanish-speaking son of Italian immigrants, and his words carry weight on the issue.

“It is not surprising that the Holy Father has called for solidarity with migrants and has derided what he has characterised as indifference towards their plight,” Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, a research group, told Al Jazeera.

“He sees immigrants not as a burden, but as a gift.”

His visit is a fillip to the 23.9 percent of Americans who are Roman Catholics.

The church has been rocked by child sex abuse scandals these past 13 years and has paid out more than $3bn in settlements. A survey by Pew Research Center this year found for every American converted to Catholicism, six abandon the faith.

For Balmer, this could be a key to the visit.

“We live in a world that seems chaotic, and we’re looking for somebody with moral authority – someone who is not afraid to pronounce himself on the big issues of the day, who transcends religious, ethnic, and tribal differences,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Francis is this sort of transcendental figure.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera