When Pope Francis makes his first ever visit to the United States this month, he'll have a packed itinerary as he travels to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo will also have a full schedule that includes several interactions with the pope.
"I, along with everybody else, am just thrilled by it," Bishop Malone said of the papal visit. "This is his first visit ever, in his whole life, to our country. It will be in many ways good for the Church and for the perception of the Church. Pope Francis has really caught the attention of the world, and he's given a new face to the Catholic Church by his style and tone. Following his visit, there will be many new graced opportunities for evangelization because he'll be capturing the attention of so many people and we'll have a lot to work off of."
Bishop Malone will join the bishops of the United States in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23 for a midday prayer with Pope Francis in St. Matthew's Cathedral. As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops administrative committee, Bishop Malone will be among the bishops presented to Pope Francis that day.
On Sept. 24, Bishop Malone and Bishop Edward M. Grosz, auxiliary bishop of Buffalo, will fly to New York City to attend the Evening Vespers celebrated by the pope at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Following the service, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan will invite all of the bishops of New York state for a private meeting with Pope Francis. Bishop Malone and Bishop Grosz will also concelebrate the pope's Mass at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 25.
After New York City, Pope Francis will travel to Philadelphia to attend the final days of the World Meeting of Families. Pope Francis will conclude the event by celebrating a public Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27. Bishop Malone will be among the concelebrants.
While Bishop Malone will be on hand for several papal events, he believes it will be unlikely to have any significant private conversations with Pope Francis.
"When you have those opportunities to meet with the pope, you have anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds," Bishop Malone said. "(The last time I saw him), I thanked him for reminding us all to be good shepherds. He's very warm and very cordial when you meet him."
What Bishop Malone is most curious about is what Pope Francis will say when he comes to this country. For the first time ever, the pope will speak at the United Nations and a joint session of Congress, as well as visit President Obama at the White House privately. Thus far, Pope Francis has never been shy about speaking his mind or even deviating from his planned remarks, and with the United States facing several hot button issues like same-sex marriage, religious liberty and more, there is no shortage of topics to talk about.
"The big question is what will be the content of his message, both to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations," Bishop Malone said. "You can be sure it will be challenging. It's hard to predict what he's going to say."
The primary purpose of the papal visit is the World Meeting of Families, an international event that is held every three years. Family life and all of its complexities has generated much discussion within the Catholic Church recently, dating back to last year's Synod of the Bishops on the Family held at the Vatican. A second synod on the same subject will be held again a week after the World Meeting of Families concludes.
"As you can see by his scheduling of two synods on families a year apart, (Pope Francis is) very committed to his theme of accompaniment," Bishop Malone said. "(He wants) to find effective and new ways for the Church pastorally to accompany families through the journey, the challenges, the ups and downs, and the joys of family life. People are expecting him to change a lot of stuff, which I doubt is going to happen, but he wants to direct us to walk the journey with these folks in a more effective and merciful way."
As the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, Bishop Malone has worked with Bishop John McIntyre, an auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, to stay apprised of plans for the World Meeting of Families. Bishop Malone hopes to provide the Holy See with some input about the state of affairs in the United States, and he expects to review his own discernment after Pope Francis finalizes his statement on family life, which should build off the work of his predecessors.
"The bishops in each country are committed to following the direction of the Second Vatican Council," Bishop Malone said. "It says that we have the obligation to scrutinize the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. We're always trying to do that ourselves as U.S. bishops, but we have to make decisions based on our own experience here, but part of our discernment about what we do here comes from the Holy Father. The synod discussions will conclude with recommendations made to the pope about what should be addressed in his letter to the world."
The Vatican is also reviewing the responses to last year's worldwide survey on family life. The survey was distributed and collated by individual dioceses. Bishop Malone said he only read a few responses, but it offered a mixed picture of Church teaching.
"It showed me that a lot of our Catholic people don't really have a solid understanding of the Church's teaching," he said. "For example, in the nature of marriage as a union of man and woman, some people were pro same-sex marriage, which means they don't understand how we view marriage from a Catholic perspective. But I'm grateful to everybody who responded because they took it very seriously. To me, it was a wake-up that we need to do a lot more effective catechesis on matters of marriage, family and sexuality."
If Pope Francis is successful during his papal visit, it will reinvigorate the American Catholic faithful. Bishop Malone quotes Luke 22:32 when Jesus Christ told His disciples at the Last Supper, "Strengthen thy brethren."
"That's one of the jobs of the successor of Peter is to strengthen us in our faith," the bishop said. "He'll challenge us for sure, but it will be a time of encouragement for the Church. It will raise the profile of the Church in our country in a positive way. The bottom line for the American people and the American Catholic community is to fasten your seat belt."