NEW YORK – When Pope Francis sets foot on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington on Sept. 22, it won’t just be his first time in the United States as pontiff. It will be his first time in the country – ever in his life.
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, never followed the footsteps of so many fellow Roman Catholic leaders of his rank, who sought to raise their profiles, along with funds for missions back home, by networking within the deeply influential and well-resourced U.S. church.
This gap in his resume can be explained in part by Francis’ personality. He was a homebody who loathed being away and felt a profound obligation to stay near the people of his archdiocese. He also famously opposed ladder-climbing, condemning what he called “airport bishops” who spend more time traveling for their own prestige or pleasure than serving their flock.
Still, Francis’ lack of firsthand experience of the U.S. stands out for many, especially those struggling to absorb his unsparing critique of the excesses of global capitalism and wondering whether this first Latin American pope harbors resentment over the history of U.S. policies in his native region.
“This trip to the United States will be the most difficult, the most challenging, and the most interesting because he’s exploring a world that for him is more foreign than Asia, than the Philippines,” where Francis traveled last January, said Massimo Faggioli, an expert in church history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “It’s not just a language barrier. It’s a cultural barrier.”
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, an Argentine and one of Francis’ key advisers at the Vatican, said he was aware of but disputed the perception that the pope disliked the United States. Francis’ view that a global economic system focused on maximizing profits was destroying the poor and the environment has landed hard in a country considered the world headquarters for capitalism.
Sanchez Sorondo insisted Francis is not anti-capitalist and said the pope admires America for the principles of the Founding Fathers, who influenced the independence movement in his native Argentina. But Francis’ outlook is also shaped by another history, including U.S. ties with Latin American dictators, America’s treatment of Mexican and Central American immigrants, and longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba, Sanchez Sorondo said. Francis recently helped negotiate a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations that has led to restored diplomatic ties between the countries.
“I don’t think the pope has anything against America,” Sanchez Sorondo said in an interview in Rome. “What the pope might have is that he felt the repercussions of America in Latin America.”
This is utterly new ground as well for American Catholics, accustomed to Francis’ immediate predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both lived through World War II, when Americans were considered liberators and generous benefactors who rebuilt the war-ravaged continent.
When John Paul was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, Poland, he traveled extensively in the U.S., especially among American Polish communities. As pope, he found broad common ground with Americans in the fight against communism.
Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Germany, had been John Paul’s guardian of doctrine for more than two decades, and not only visited the U.S., but also met with American church leaders regularly in Rome. In 2008, on Benedict’s sole visit to the U.S. as pontiff, he greeted President George W. Bush at the White House, where the pope ended his remarks with the phrase, “God Bless America.” That sign-off was taken by many Europeans and others as a stunning nod to the idea of American exceptionalism, Faggioli said.
“Pope Francis – his cultural roots, his formation – is completely different,” Faggioli said.
Among those experiences was the 2001 Argentine economic crisis, which sparked riots, soaring unemployment and a quick succession of presidents as the government struggled to handle its massive debts. Bergoglio was intimately involved in trying to help Argentines and their leaders emerge from the turmoil, which many blamed on free-market policies promoted by the U.S.
Yet, that collapse could have easily compelled Bergoglio to finally visit America. It is common for overseas leaders to send a local cardinal as an informal emissary to “make sure that people in Washington, and the U.S. bishops, understood the impact,” of America’s policies abroad, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter newspaper and author of “Inside the Vatican.”
But that role would have been unthinkable for Bergoglio. He had very tense relations with much of the Argentine ruling class, often challenging them bluntly in national forums to abandon partisan self-interest and do more for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
“It wasn’t like he could get together with them, and say, ‘OK, this is our strategy. Let’s go lobby Washington on these things.’ They often weren’t on speaking terms with one another,” Reese said.
However, Francis’ belief about what it meant to be a faithful churchman was likely the biggest factor keeping him from the U.S., church experts say.
Like all Jesuits, Bergoglio vowed he would not seek higher ecclesial office. He is the first Jesuit in the 481-year history of the religious order to become pope. His 1992 appointment as a Buenos Aires auxiliary bishop came as a shock – for him and for Argentine Catholics, most of whom had never heard of him, according to Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Greater Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”
Dubbed the “slum pope” for his dedication to the poor, he spent much of his time as archbishop in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. Vacations generally meant staying in his church apartment and reading – just like he did on his Rome vacation this summer.
He didn’t much like to be abroad. In the 1980s, when Bergoglio was sent to Germany for a few months for doctoral studies, he grew so homesick that he spent some nights watching planes take off from the airport for Argentina, Ivereigh wrote.
“It’s not at all surprising to me that he hasn’t been here,” said the Rev. Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of the Jesuit magazine America, based in New York. “His whole life has been devoted to the people of Argentina and South America.”
In a July question-and-answer session with reporters, Francis said he would spend the weeks ahead of his U.S. visit “studying” for the trip. In the past, he had expressed some unease with the English language, but he has given well-delivered – and well-received – speeches in English on two different trips, in South Korea and during his Sri Lanka-Philippines pilgrimage earlier this year. In America, he will be making remarks both in English and Spanish.
His introduction to the U.S. will begin in Washington, where he will address a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, followed by an address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and outdoor Mass at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
But he will start the journey earlier and somewhere much more familiar, in Cuba, where from Sept. 19 to 22 he will mark the country’s new era with the U.S., then travel directly here.
“Francis’ heart is in the Third World and the Global South, but he has a way of proclaiming the Gospel that’s very attractive to people in the United States,” Reese said. “I think there will be an overwhelming response from the American people to him. I think they will be charmed by him.”
Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.