VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will meet with homeless people, immigrants and prisoners during his upcoming trip to Cuba and the United States and become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress. He’ll also preside over a meeting about religious liberty – a major issue for U.S. bishops in the wake of the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision.
The Vatican published the itinerary Tuesday for the eagerly awaited Sept. 19-28 visit.
Francis added the Cuba leg onto the start of his U.S. trip after helping contribute to the historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
In Cuba, he’ll celebrate Mass in Revolution Square in Havana – as both of his predecessors did during their trips to the Caribbean island nation. He’ll travel to Holguin and pray before the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the patron of Cuba, and meet with Cuban families in the eastern city of Santiago.
Francis arrives in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22 and the next day will be welcomed at the White House by President Barack Obama, the Vatican said.
Francis will address Congress on Sept. 24, and will meet with homeless people later in the day at a local parish, St. Patrick’s.
On Sept. 25, Francis will speak on sustainable development at the United Nations, where he’ll have another opportunity to voice his concerns about the environment.
Republicans in the U.S. Congress, and even some Republican U.S. presidential candidates, have largely shrugged off Francis’ denunciation of the current global economic system in which wealthy countries exploit the poor and pollute the Earth in the process.
Nevertheless, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said lawmakers were welcoming the unprecedented papal visit “with open ears and hearts.”
“It is with humility and deep gratitude that we will welcome His Holiness Pope Francis to the U.S. Capitol in September for a Joint Meeting of Congress. His visit to the U.S. Capitol is unprecedented, and it is with open ears and hearts that we will welcome his address to the Congress. This will be a historic visit, and given the large public interest in Pope Francis, the U.S. Congress is making the appropriate preparations to reflect the magnitude of his visit to the Capitol and ensure his message can be heard by all Americans,” said Boehner.
Francis will host an interfaith gathering at Ground Zero in New York and meet with children and immigrant families in Harlem.
Unlike his predecessors, Francis has no meeting with the Jewish community listed on the official itinerary. Francis, though, has very close relations with U.S. Jewish groups and is known to change course during foreign trips to add extra encounters. An unannounced encounter with victims of priestly sexual abuse is also a possibility.
While Pope Paul VI in 1965, St. John Paul II in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2008 celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium, Francis will celebrate Mass for a smaller crowd in Madison Square Garden. He’ll also preside over a vespers service at the newly spruced-up St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
On Sept. 26, he will join the church’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, a big rally for the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on families. He will host a “meeting for religious liberty” on Independence Mall with immigrants and the Hispanic community, the Vatican itinerary said.
U.S. Catholic bishops have for years decried what they say are attacks on religious liberty, particularly over national health care laws that require insurance coverage for contraception.
The bishops’ latest rallying cry has come in the wake of the Supreme Court decision declaring that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide.
While the decision does not compel any clergy – Catholic or otherwise – to marry gay couples, there are concerns that the massive network of faith-based charities, hospitals and schools in the U.S., many of which accept some government funding, will be forced to recognize same-sex couples by providing benefits to same-sex spouses or placing adoptive children with gay couples.
While Francis has fiercely upheld church teaching that marriage is between a man and woman, he and the Vatican as a whole tend to consider religious liberty in more global terms, with Christians being slaughtered for their faith across the Middle East and parts of Africa by Islamic militants.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he reminded Americans that religious freedom issues in the United States are not the same as religious freedom issues around the globe,” said Christopher Bellitto, an expert on church history at Kean University in New Jersey.
Francis will visit prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia before celebrating the final Mass of the family meeting on Sept. 27, a celebration expected to draw some 1.5 million people in what is expected to be his largest gathering on U.S. soil.