Pope Francis heads to Washington on Tuesday after his tumultuous welcome in Cuba, where the Caribbean island gave a pontiff the most open welcome ever in more than 50 years.
The three-city, five-day tour of the United States that Pope Francis will embark on Tuesday will take the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to a place far from his comfort zone.
The Argentine-born Francis will set foot on US soil for the first time. Although he is the first pope to hail from the Americas, he is a vocal critic of aspects of the US mindset, including consumerism and untrammeled capitalism.
As Francis addresses the powerful in Washington, he won’t fit neatly into the typical left-right divide of US politics, with both President Barack Obama’s advisors and congressional Republicans prepared for areas of disagreement.
The pope “looks at the world from the bottom up and outside-in; he’s the ultimate Washington outsider,” John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said.
“We think we are the centre of the world. We are not the centre of his world. He would rather be in the slums of Argentina than in the corridors of power.”
The pope is also an outspoken advocate for open-door migration policies and climate action, and wants the Catholic Church to be less judgemental towards divorcees, homosexuals and women who have had an abortion.
Such stances have attracted sharp criticism from some conservative circles – talk show host Rush Limbaugh famously called Francis a “Marxist” – but mainstream US Catholic opinion seems in tune with their spiritual leader. 86 per cent of American Catholics view the pope favourably, the Pew Research Centre found.
The White House is stressing Francis’ positions on the environment and the poor, but has also chosen to invite guests to meet the pope whose lifestyles run counter to Catholic teachings, including a gay protestant bishop. Obama has also clashed with the church on whether faith groups must provide health coverage for birth control.
“There will be some messages with which we may respectfully disagree or have differences,” said Charles Kupchan, who advises Obama on European issues. But he points to agreements on climate change, fighting inequality and poverty that “resonate very much with the president’s agenda.”
The pontiff will be greeted by Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when he lands Tuesday, after a three-day stay in Communist Cuba.
Francis added the Cuba visit after helping broker a historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana that ended a diplomatic freeze of more than 50 years.
Highlights will include the canonization of Junipero Serra, a controversial 18th century missionary who established churches across California; speeches to Congress and the United Nations; a mass in New York’s Madison Square Garden; and a visit to the Ground Zero Memorial.
As the first pontiff to address the US Congress, if he stresses climate change, immigration reform or government support for the poor he could alienate his Republican hosts, but he could also underline areas such as opposition to abortion with which Republicans tend to agree.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, the top Republican in the lower chamber and a Catholic, acknowledged they might not always see eye-to-eye on some more “controversial issues,” but added, “Hey, it’s the pope.”
Francis is also due to meet with the homeless in Washington, migrant families in New York, and prison inmates in Philadelphia, where Francis will close the World Meeting of Families, before flying back to Rome September 27.
The World Meeting of Families will give the pope the opportunity to set the tone for the October 4-22 Synod, a world summit of bishops at the Vatican due to discuss a controversial softening of stances towards gays and divorcees.
Given Francis’ trademark impatience with protocol, observers expect plenty of unscripted moments. One possibility is that the pope – like his predecessor Benedict XVI on his 2008 US trip – will meet with victims of paedophile priests.
“He hasn’t seized the bull by the horns, exposed predators, punished enablers, deterred cover ups or ordered his bishops to do likewise. As a result, children remain at risk,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
She called on Francis to open up files on predator priests, push for child protection lawas and defrock those who protect corrupt officials.
As with all papal trips, security is an issue.
The head of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress, Michael McCaul, told broadcaster ABC that security services had already “disrupted” a planned attack against the pope, and were “very vigilant” against further threats.
But the Vatican has said that Francis does not intend to give up the use of open-topped papal mobiles or limit contact with crowds. In Washington some 15,000 people will gather on the White House lawn and 200,000 are expected to catch an unticketed glimpse as he leaves there.
In Philadelphia he is to lead an open-air mass in front of 2 million people.