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Pope Francis' Southern Entry To The U.S. Has Symbolic Meaning


One leader whose popularity transcends politics arrives in Washington, D.C., this afternoon. Pope Francis is beginning a six-day, three-city trip to the U.S., his first ever. And as a special gesture, President Obama and the First Lady will greet the pope when he steps off the plane at Joint Base Andrews. Francis will be coming from Cuba. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope and joins us from the Cuban city of Santiago. Good morning.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, nothing the Vatican does it without layers of meaning. What would you say is behind the pope's decision to stop first in Cuba on his way to the U.S.?

POGGIOLI: Well, you may remember that a few months ago he said he would have liked to enter the United States from across the border from Mexico. Well, that turned out to be impossible for a variety of reasons. But arriving in the U.S. from Cuba has a definite symbolic meaning. Francis is a Latin American. He's even emerging as a sort of leading voice representing the Latin American continent. So he is a purposefully entering the United States from the south and, you know, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, actually said in an interview last week, the pope is arriving in the U.S. as a migrant.

MONTAGNE: Interesting way of characterizing that - I mean, Francis will be speaking to a joint meeting of Congress, and he has said things, political things, including comments on immigration and migration that managed to upset and encourage both Republicans and Democrats. What might we expect from him?

POGGIOLI: Well, all I can say is that Francis is really very unpredictable. He's full of surprises. Clearly, he will say these things. He will repeat many of the things that are uncomfortable for many Americans - not just Americans. He will be challenging things to the whole political and social spectrum. He has severely critiqued Western unfettered capitalism, globalization and consumer societies whose victims are mainly the poor. He talks about a throwaway society, both materially and morally. And these positions - particularly his position on climate change - have angered conservatives both among Catholics and nonbelievers. But he's also made, you know, liberals squirm with his positions on abortion, family planning and gender theory. It will all depend on his tone, which I think in the end will not be scolding, but it will be challenging.

MONTAGNE: And Sylvia, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is changing rather quickly. It's becoming increasingly Hispanic and Asian. Old ethnic parishes are closing in places like Chicago and Boston, Philadelphia, while parishes in the South and the West are booming. What is Francis's message to the American Church?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think it will be the same message he gives to all Catholic churches which is focus on the poor and marginalized and do not get caught up in what he calls spiritual worldliness, which is being self-centered and distant from the faithful. What he dislikes most of all is clericalism. You know, his experience as a priest was - his formative years were several decades working in the poor slums of Buenos Aires. That really formed his vision of the Church. He calls it a field hospital that has to cure spiritual wounds. He's very aware of the strong religiosity of Americans much more than Europeans, but he will send the same message, tend to the marginalized on the peripheries of society.

MONTAGNE: And just finally, Sylvia, you've covered the Vatican for years. What is it about this pope that's so riveting?

POGGIOLI: I think it's his straight talk - very direct. He's raising so many urgent political issues, but he's not trying to change doctrine, but he's trying to really change the tone of the church - more inclusive, tolerant and nonjudgmental. The key word is mercy. His motto is, roughly, choosing through mercy. I think that's the key word.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli traveling with Pope Francis in Cuba, leaving shortly for the US. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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