Pope Gives Symbolic Blessing to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Pope Francis visits the US

Pope Francis greets Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg
  • Pontiff arrives in Washington after meeting with Castro
  • U.S. itinerary emphasizes outreach to the downtrodden

Pope Francis’s arrival in the U.S. directly from Cuba Tuesday is a purposeful bit of symbolism that affirms President Barack Obama’s decision to end the half century of U.S. estrangement from the island nation.

Obama was on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington with first lady Michelle Obama, their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and Vice President Joe Biden and his family, to personally greet Francis. It’s a courtesy U.S. presidents rarely accord foreign leaders and it comes just two days after the pontiff shook the hand of Fidel Castro, long a nemesis of American political leaders.

In another symbol, this time of his environmental credo, Francis used a small, humble Fiat 500L to head from the base to Washington -- which was dwarfed by the hulking sport-utility vehicles of the Secret Service in the motorcade.

Francis’s aim in visiting Cuba was “above all to further what he hopes will be a historic reconciliation between Cuba and the U.S.,” papal biographer Austen Ivereigh said. “Francis is a Latin American pope who sympathized with the Cuban Revolution before it turned communist.”

Starting with his landing on U.S. soil Tuesday afternoon, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics will insert himself into some of the most passionate political debates dividing the U.S.

Vigorously Opposed

The rapprochement with Cuba remains vigorously opposed by many of the Republican lawmakers he’ll see on Thursday when he gives the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress.

Other parts of the pontiff’s message for his first U.S. visit -- countering climate change and income inequality and welcoming immigrants -- align with Obama’s agenda and are anathema to many of the president’s opponents. At the same time, the Vatican is in conflict with Obama on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and his administration’s policy on contraception coverage by employer health plans.

Francis’s six-day visit, his first to the U.S., includes a meeting with Obama at the White House on Wednesday, the address to Congress and a speech to the United Nations.

‘All Americans’

The pontiff sees the Washington leg of his journey as “an opportunity to speak to all Americans through their representatives and not just to Catholics,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

The pope’s emphasis on social justice has upset a decades-old alignment between the U.S. church hierarchy and Republican cultural conservatives, who had lined up with the Vatican’s strong stances in opposition to communism, abortion rights and recognition of same-sex unions.

Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, a Catholic, said he would boycott Francis’s speech. In an article published on the website Townhall.com, Gosar wrote, “When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.”

‘Left Leaning’

On his flight from Cuba to the U.S., Francis told reporters that some explanations of his writings may have led people to think that he’s “a little bit more left-leaning,” according to the Associated Press. “I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he added.

Obama’s spokesman said the president views his meeting with the pope as a demonstration of respect for the pontiff’s moral authority.

“This is not a meeting between politicians, and this is not an effort to advance anybody’s political agenda,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. While the two men have some shared values, “I’d be reluctant to ascribe any political views to the pope.”

As with his arrival from Cuba, each segment of the pope’s itinerary is designed to illustrate the themes of his papacy.

From the Capitol, the Pope will go straight to meet some 200 homeless people at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington. True to his appeal after his election for “a poor Church for the poor,” Francis is devoting much of his time in the U.S. to the downtrodden -- including students and their families at a school in Harlem, and Hispanic immigrants and prisoners in Philadelphia.

He will celebrate his first public Mass in the U.S. in Spanish, the language of the nation’s largest immigrant group, and mark the canonization of a Hispanic saint, Junipero Serra.

Francis initially had considered an entrance to the U.S. that would have touched on an even more explosive political issue: immigration.

The Pope told the Mexican multimedia group Televisa he wanted to cross over the border from Mexico in a show of solidarity with Latino immigrants. Francis said in the interview that he abandoned the idea for logistical reasons.

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