Did that title get your attention? I could have titled my column "Francis Is Coming," in anticipation of our Holy Father's visit to the United States September 22-27 of this year. The Holy Father has also just confirmed that he will make a pastoral visit to Cuba just prior to his arrival in the U.S. This will be a significant follow up to St. John Paul II's visit in 1998, in which I was privileged to participate.
But Pope Francis is, for us, Peter ... in the sense that as the Church's universal pastor, he carries on in his person the ministry of St. Peter. If you have ever witnessed the most solemn papal liturgies at St. Peter's Basilica, you may have heard the Sistine Choir welcome the entrance of the pope with the beautiful Palestrina motet "Tu es Petrus." "You are Peter."
These are Jesus' words to Simon Peter in Matthew 16 after Peter answered the Lord's question, "Who do you say that I am?" with the affirmation, "You are the Christ, Son of the living God." And Jesus responded, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
It is thrilling to millions of Americans, whether Catholic or not, that Pope Francis has chosen to visit our country in September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. This decision manifests the Holy Father's very strong commitment to the building up of marriage and family life, the purpose also of the two synods on the family, one held last fall, and the second to be held this October at the Vatican.
While the Meeting of Families is the primary reason for the pope's first visit to the U.S., his schedule while he is here with us, though not yet finally confirmed in detail, has him doing several other significant things. We know that there will be a welcome ceremony at the White House. He will meet with all of the U.S. bishops while in Washington, and also celebrate the canonization Mass for Blessed Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish Franciscan friar who founded the California missions. We are told that he will address the U.S. Congress before heading to New York City, where he will celebrate Mass, visit an inner city school, gather for an ecumenical and interreligious service at Ground Zero, and visit the United Nations.
The weekend will be given over to the Meeting of Families, and will highlight an evening prayer vigil and a Eucharistic celebration to conclude the World Meeting of Families.
It will be a very special blessing to have Pope Francis with us this September. In Luke 22, Jesus directs Peter to "confirm," or "strengthen" His brethren. We can be sure that our "Peter" will confirm all of his sisters and brothers in our faith and hope ... and that he will challenge us to live lives of deeper commitment to the Lord and more heartfelt compassion for all of God's people.
Let's pray now that the Holy Father's pastoral visit to the U.S. may be a graced time of renewal for our Church, and a wake up call to all of America to live up to our nation's highest ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.