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Editorial: Five essential American issues for Pope Francis

Pope Francis will visit the White House on Wednesday and address a joint session of Congress on Thursday. AFP photo courtesy of Osservatore Romano.

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With actions and words, Pope Francis has given new heart to the Catholic Church. He is a pope in touch with the trials and tribulations of ordinary people.

From the promise Pope Francis made at his installation Mass in 2013, when he pledged to serve “the poorest, the weakest, the least important,” to his open-minded and powerful sensibility on gay men and women, when he asked just months into his papacy, “Who am I to judge,” he has exhibited great compassion and charity.

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As the pope traverses the globe, such gestures resonate not only with relatively more progressive Catholics but also the world. Eager, large crowds are expected to greet him on his U.S. visit. It begins Tuesday with his arrival at the Joint Base Andrews military facility in Maryland, and includes stops at the White House, Capitol, New York and Philadelphia.

Only 2 ½ years into papacy, it is too early to know what kind of impact Francis will have on church doctrine. But there is no denying he is shifting the church’s focus to be more inclusive of everyday people.

We see it in Chicago with his choice to lead the Chicago archdiocese, Archbishop Blase Cupich, who gave a forceful endorsement of working people Thursday in a speech at a union hall on the West Side. Cupich will join the pope on his U.S. visit.

This new direction is vital for the church in the U.S., where 52 percent of U.S. adults who were raised Catholic have left the church at some point, according to Pew Research. Most have not returned.

A pope full of surprises has been a breath of fresh air, and as he visits our country we hope he keeps at the forefront these issues:

Sexual abuse by priests

The pope has apologized to victims of sexual abuse by priests and created a commission of experts that includes two survivors of abuse to advise the Vatican on protecting children from pedophile priests and counseling victims. He accepted the commission’s recommendation for a Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to remove abusive priests. Yet, the process is bureaucratic and frustratingly slow.

“The commission gives the impression that with more time and study experts can give recommendations,” Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told us. “That’s not making children safer.”

Blaine’s group wants all case files at the Vatican turned over to law enforcement and swift punishment for bishops who engaged in cover-ups.

Immigration

The pope has been eloquent on the subject of immigration, and Cupich has echoed him in Chicago. There will be no better time to hammer home the need for compassion and practical measures to address this country’s immigration crisis than on Thursday when Francis becomes the first pope to address a joint session of Congress. The pope also must continue to press Europe and the Americas to open their borders to refugees fleeing war-torn countries.

Gays

Francis raised the hopes of progressives when he told reporters, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He also floated civil unions as a compromise on the debate over gay marriage in Argentina when he served as cardinal of Buenos Aires — and it did not go over well with more conservative bishops. Yet, so far he has stood by church teaching on homosexuality — it is an intrinsic disorder — and a traditional view of marriage.

Women

Wisely, Pope Francis ended two Vatican investigations of U.S. nuns initiated by his predecessor, Pope Benedict. But the church has a long way to go when it comes to female leaders. Francis has made clear that women will not serve as priests, and it’s a shame there won’t be more conversation about it. We urge the Vatican to open other positions of leadership to women. Chicago is an important example of progress. Earlier this year Cupich picked a woman, Betsy Bohlen, to be chief operating officer of the Chicago archdiocese. That was a first in Chicago.

Divorce

According to Pew Research, 1 in 4 Catholics in the U.S. have divorced and 1 in 10 have divorced and remarried. It makes no sense to alienate them from the church and Francis understands that. Earlier this month he simplified the path for annulments to make it easier for divorced Catholics to remain in good standing with the church. But we hope this is just a beginning to making the Catholic Church more welcoming.

Cupich will be in a position to further shape the pope’s views. He will travel to Rome next month as one of eight American bishops to join a Synod on the Family that will discuss marriage, contraception, divorce and homosexuality.

The recommendations of the Synod on the Family will carry weight with this pope.

Francis prides himself on being a listener, a leader who consults with others before making the final call.

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