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Pope Francis's First American Trip Will Be Heavy on Politics and Prayer

The 78-year-old pontiff arrives in Washington, DC this afternoon, kicking off a busy tour in which he'll touch on themes of criminal justice, homelessness, and immigration.
Photo by Gabriel Bouys/EPA

Pope Francis will immediately be swept into a series events over the next five days when he arrives at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, DC this afternoon. Along with the obligatory motorcades and prayer sessions, the three-city tour involves the first-ever address by a pope to Congress, a pit stop at a Philadelphia prison, and a meeting with the United Nations General Assembly — showcases that will highlight the political dimensions of Francis's papacy and his position on social issues.


The commingling of religion and politics may be exactly what the Argentine-born pope is trying to achieve.

"The sharp distinction between politics and prayer — that's a US thing," said Thomas Ryan, a professor of religion at Loyola University New Orleans and the director of its Institute for Ministry. "For the pope, the issues of homelessness, hyper-incarceration, and immigration affect his faith, and his faith informs his response to them."

During the 78-year-old pontiff's visit, observers will see whether he's able to redirect the influence that has encouraged a diplomatic reconciliation between Cuba and the United States to help mollify an American legislature mired in partisan bickering. Francis will deliver remarks to Congress on Thursday and then pay a visit later that afternoon to the Catholic Charities St. Maria's Meals, a charity that serves three food programs a week to the poor and homeless in the Washington area.

His Holiness is expected to address immigration during a speech Saturday at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, known as the birthplace of American democracy. The speech comes as the world grapples with a massive refugee crisis owing to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The presidential campaign season has also seen prospective candidates sharpen their positions on immigration with extreme rhetoric that has branded Mexican immigrants as violent criminals and proposed the building of walls along the country's borders with Mexico and Canada.


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Francis is also expected to weigh in on America's epidemic of mass incarceration — a topic that has become a prominent issue among 2016 presidential candidates and lawmakers on both sides of the political pews who believe the time has come to reform the justice system.

The pontiff has long opposed the death penalty, and previously characterized a life sentence without the possibility of parole as a "hidden death penalty." On Sunday, Francis will press his point by visiting men and women held in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in northeast Philadelphia, retracing a similar route President Barack Obama took when he walked the halls and met inmates at a medium-security prison for nonviolent male offenders in Oklahoma in July.

Though Republicans and Democrats have worked together to introduce legislation to reduce the roughly $80 billion in taxpayer money that is spent each year on prisons, the pope's previous calls to abolish executions, solitary confinement, pretrial detention, imprisonment of children and the elderly, and the detention of undocumented migrants are likely too ambitious for US lawmakers who are focused on reforms that have centered on issues like eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, scrubbing juvenile post-detention records, and reducing prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders.

Staff members at Curran-Fromhold are not sure why the pope chose that particular facility, but media reports have noted that roughly 80 percent of the prison's inmates are currently being held on pre-trial detention, many of them because they cannot afford to post bond as they await their court hearings.

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Some of the pope's positions on sensitive left-leaning issues, from criminal justice to climate change, have alienated policy makers on the right, a few of whom have already vowed to boycott his speech to Congress Thursday. But Ryan doesn't believe that the pope's intention is to lecture or admonish lawmakers. He'll "invite them to share a new perspective on faith instead of waving his finger," he said.

"Looking at what he did in Cuba, where he didn't push very hard on the explicit political issues that divide the country, I think he's going to try to transcend politics and the liberal-conservative divide that obfuscate the real issues," Ryan added. "That for the pope is addressing the most vulnerable in society: the wrongfully incarcerated, the homeless and poor, and immigrants."