Pope Francis has a big week in front of him when he touches down in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.
He will be greeted at the airport by President Obama, will make a highly anticipated speech to the U.S. Congress, followed by an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, and finish with a huge gathering of up to 1.5 million in Philadelphia. Much of the attention for his tour will be focused on these marquee events at which he will address the powerful members of governments from around the world and within the United States. The media and pundits are prepared to highlight his statements on climate change, immigration, abortion, gay marriage and capitalism and parse out "losers" from "winners" in the political, religious and business arenas.
While these high-profile events matter, they are not the most important on Pope Francis' agenda. Over the five short days that Pope Francis will be in the United States he will, of course, also be visiting churches, addressing the U.S. bishops and speaking with faithful Catholics in all three cities. But even these gatherings are not the most important he will attend.
While Pope Francis is in America he will be making a pilgrimage to visit with our nation's "least of these" that Jesus articulates in Matthew 25 -- and it is there that we will see the core values of Pope Francis as spiritual leader.
Matthew 25 is a judgment day text within the Christian New Testament in which Jesus is explaining the decision-making process of who will inherit the kingdom of God in heaven. It reads:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me."
The hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the stranger -- Pope Francis will not just be talking about these people Jesus claims, and identifies as representing himself on this earth, he will be actively seeking out their company.
When given a closer look, Pope Francis seems to have planned his agenda with Matthew 25 in mind. In Washington, D.C. he will be meeting with the clients of St. Maria Meals Program of Catholic Charities who struggle with hunger and homelessness; in New York he will be encountering the stranger at the 9/11 Memorial where an interfaith gathering will pledge reconciliation and peace and care for the bereft; followed by a visit to the Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem; and ends in Philadelphia with a talk about immigration at Independence Mall and a visit with prisoners and some of their families at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
The Jesuit Rev. James Martin recently said that the two words that Pope Francis uses most frequently with the poor and other marginalized figures are "accompaniment and encounter." Pope Francis knows that charity and policy, although important, are not enough.
While he will be speaking about important issues that affect those who Jesus called "the least of these" at the United Nations and Congress, these speeches are not at the heart of his ministry or the Gospel. The pope wants to meet America's poor, homeless, and hungry. He wants to take time with the imprisoned, the immigrant stranger, the marginalized, and the outcast -- because if he didn't, he would miss his encounter with Christ on American soil.
Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, the head of Catholic Charities in New York explained to me why this is so important: "Pope Francis' understanding of what it means to be a leader in the Catholic Church is to have a high priority for those on the margins."
Monsignor Sullivan has been talking to the group of people who will be meeting with the pope in East Harlem. These include immigrant mothers who are hand sewing the linens for the altar, day laborers, and students from Central America. He explained to me how they are feeling about meeting Francis. "They are incredibly honored and inspired. They are getting a sense from the pope that he views them as a priority, and moved and humbled that he is going to come and meet them in a gym in a school." The Monsignor went on to say: "It's valuable that he is meeting with the prestigious people in Congress and the UN. But these people in East Harlem are not just talking about problems, they are doing the real work of this country day-in and day-out."
What a gift these visits are to America. Not just to those who will meet with Pope Francis personally, and hopefully will gain some sense of healing and love from that encounter, but for all of us who need to have our gaze led once again to the poor, the homeless and the marginalized.
When Pope Francis visited the Middle East he did his best to be present at places that held deep meaning to people on all sides of that region as if to say "I stand with all of you, and for peace." In meeting with the powerful and those who are struggling in equal fashion, Pope Francis is reiterating his hopes that even in the deeply divided country that is America today -- both politically as well as economically -- we can find ways to treat one another with dignity and respect, especially those who represent the least of these, and who Jesus called blessed.
Also on The Huffington Post:
The Secret to Understanding Pope Francis. A Conversation with Rev. James Martin, SJ