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Pope’s historic trip to the U.S. will be a teaching, and learning, experience

With some 72 million Catholics in the United States, a visit by any pope is certain to be an event. But today’s arrival of Pope Francis is something different, because this pope is different. Not only is he the first pope from South America – a heritage that is bound to produce a different set of influences – but he combines the virtues of humility and moral significance in a way the world has not previously seen.

Francis is shaking things up, and not always to the liking of the church’s traditionalists, but in a way that meets the approval of the vast majority of American Catholics, according to a new poll. The man who washes the feet of AIDS sufferers also says of homosexual men and women, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

This is the pope who lives in a Vatican “hotel” rather than the official papal apartment, but who was President Obama’s crucial partner in restoring relations with Cuba. The pope who shuns the cloistering security that arose after the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II rails against global warming and environmental effrontery. And why not? His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was named patron saint of ecology by none other than John Paul II.

Other popes have also been revered in this country, and around the world – and by Catholics and non-Catholics, alike. John Paul II, who played a role in the dismantling of the Communist regime of his home country, Poland, was much loved and admired around the world. What sets these popes apart is an integrity and righteousness that is firmly rooted in their Catholicism but that spreads far beyond it.

Why wouldn’t the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics oppose the rule of Communism, as suffocating as it was to the human spirit? And why wouldn’t he also agitate for the protection of Earth’s environment, which was provided by Providence, according to his faith? There is a consistency in such positions that cuts across political lines, sometimes to the discomfort of the faithful, who may be as subject to political dogma as to religion.

This will be the first time Francis has visited the United States. He arrives Tuesday from Cuba and will visit Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia before returning to Rome on Sunday.

His itinerary reads much like the rest of his papacy. During his stay, Francis will speak to Congress, address the United Nations, attend evening prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, join a multireligion service at the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, say Masses for multitudes, meet bishops and visit a prison. In Philadelphia he will attend the closing festival of the World Meeting of Families.

All this from a pope who is 78 years old.

A story in the New York Times earlier this month looked at why Francis had never previously visited the United States. The former archbishop of Buenos Aires was most comfortable at home, the story reported, but was also critical of what some in his country refer to as “savage capitalism” – too little concern for the consequences of the pursuit of money.

Some of that critique is, no doubt, true, but some of it reflects the insularity of Latin America. The problem is hardly unique. Even within the United States, we hold distorted views of other regions.

It’s another reason to welcome Francis to this country. Even as he prods Americans to reconsider their own priorities, Francis will have the opportunity to update his assessment of this country. Everybody wins.