Two years ago, a relatively unknown Argentine cardinal appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica and was introduced as Pope Francis. Since that time, he has become one of the world’s most beloved figures. And in just six months, he will make his inaugural visit to the United States – a trip that will certainly add to his popularity, but more meaningfully, will help continue to renew an American church that is eagerly awaiting his arrival.
Like much of the world, Americans seem to be taken by his young papacy. The latest figures from the Pew Research Center reveal that Francis has garnered a 90 percent favorability approval among U.S. Catholics and 70 percent among the general public.
While in the United States in September, he will address a joint session of Congress in Washington and the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The real pinnacle of his visit, however, will be Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families, which Francis has chosen as the primary cause of his journey. Like his recent predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis believes that strengthening family life is essential – not just for the Catholic Church but for society as a whole.
From the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that he convened in Rome in October to his consistent exploration of the challenges of family life in his weekly public audiences, Francis continues to direct the attention of the world on the need for a renewal of family life. He believes it is through building strong and healthy families that we will find solutions to our problems – from poverty and education to reaching those on the margins of society.
Building strong families is a key means through which society can live out the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church that life, at all stages and all situations, is valuable. This is why Francis has frequently called for a rejection of the “throwaway culture” – reminding us of the ties that bind us together and the need to stand with unborn children and their mothers, undocumented immigrants, the poor and the needy, the homeless and jobless, and with children, the handicapped and the elderly.
During his recent visit to the Philippines, Francis reminded those in attendance that “Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself.” For Catholics, no one gets left behind and families are a primary way to ensure this.
These themes will be considered in detail and with enthusiasm at the World Meeting of Families, where Francis will help the church focus sustained attention on these issues. In announcing the World Meeting, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput declared that all are welcome at this celebration – a reminder that the role of the church, as evidenced by Francis’ papacy, is to meet people where they are and help them grow closer to God.
In his recently released biography of Francis, “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” veteran Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh posits that the key theme to understanding Francis’ papacy is as journey with “God’s holy faithful people.” This was evident on the evening of his first public appearance as pope, when Francis surprised many by asking those in attendance to pray for him, shifting the focus on the people of God and the ground below.
Over the last two years, as Francis has dined with the homeless, celebrated Mass with 6 million young people on the beaches of Brazil, cold-called ordinary men and women who have written him with their concerns and continually expressed solidarity with those in need, he has offered a lived witness of what it means to know the needs of those around him.
Francis’ posture has been focused outward, and by example, he has encouraged all of us to reorient ourselves as well. That’s why restoring a culture that promotes families continues to be a consequential subject for him, for it is in the family that we first learn to sacrifice for one another, overcome differences, and love unconditionally.
Journeying alongside “God’s holy faithful people” is a fine summation of Francis’ papacy thus far and what we can expect in the months and years ahead. And with the expected attendance of more than 1 million of those faithful people from all over the world to welcome him in Philadelphia in September, he’s sure to have good company.
Christopher White is co-author of “Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the Catholic Church” and an associate director of Catholic Voices USA.