Welcoming the Holy Father

In a few short weeks, Pope Francis will land at Joint Base Andrews across the Potomac River and begin his Apostolic Visit to the United States. Given that this will be the first visit of a Pope to the United States since 2008 and that this will be the first time Pope Francis has set foot in this country in his 78 years, there is much about which to be excited. In order to give him a hospitable welcome, many practical preparations are underway: Altars are being built for the Masses he will celebrate; traffic routes are being laid out; and multimedia campaigns are being launched to cover his travels and speeches. However, my dear brothers and sisters, the most important preparation that we can undertake is to ready our hearts to receive his message.

The term "apostle" means "one who is sent." Therefore, an "apostolic journey" signals that the Holy Spirit is sending the Pope to us. Throughout salvation history, the Lord sent messengers to His people, from the patriarchs to the prophets to His own Beloved Son. The Lord knows that we are in need of the Holy Father's message: "Love is Our Mission." While the communication of a message requires prayerful preparation by the person delivering it, it also necessitates an openness, humility and willingness to listen on the part of those who will receive it.

Since the announcement of Pope Francis' visit, it has been hard to miss the newspaper headlines, tweets and television commentary speculating about what topics the Holy Father might address while he is here. When examined closely, it becomes clear that much of this commentary is based upon a misunderstanding of the papacy, as if the office is akin to a political appointment or as if the Holy Father were a spokesperson for a cause. The recent publication of a poll about Pope Francis' popularity suggests as much, as if his words gain or lose merit against the backdrop of popular opinion.

Furthermore, it is evident that many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are reading the Holy Father's words and actions through ideological and political lenses. Many are hoping that Pope Francis will speak to our political questions, economic dilemmas, public policy disputes and culture wars. He may very well address these topics on his trip; his visits to other countries suggest he wants to address concrete situations. But selective listening carries with it the risk of missing the actual message.

As Christians, we know that the Gospel is too expansive for ideological and political categories, and they are often at odds with its fullness. Ideologies are reductive, and Catholicism will never find its home in them. As Pope Francis has stated, "In ideologies there is not Jesus: [H]is tenderness, His love, His meekness ... When a Christian becomes a disciple of ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of an attitude of thought …" (Homily, Oct. 17, 2013).

Unlike notable worldly offices or positions, the Pope's authority does not come from any earthly power. His message is Christ's message, which may or not be in sync with popular opinion. In fact, we heard last Sunday in Saint John's Gospel that people confronted Jesus about His teachings: "These sayings are hard. Who can accept them?" (Jn 6:60) The Pope speaks from the "rock-solid" faith of Peter, upon which the Church is built. This is a faith with teachings that at times comfort us but at other times challenge us. The Pope's message will be one in which we are challenged to embrace the Good News in its fullness.

Dear friends, I call you brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus because we have one Heavenly Father. And the Lord, in turn, has sent us a Holy Father as a sign and symbol of that unity. During this Apostolic Visit, I encourage you to listen to the Holy Father with an open heart. As the Prophet Isaiah says, we must "incline our ear" toward the Holy Father, letting go of the idea that he will conform his message to our hopes and expectations. Will his message be challenging? Yes. Will it be better than expected and just what we need? Without a doubt.

In these coming weeks as we anticipate Pope Francis' visit to the United States, let us prepare our hearts to welcome him as a father, ready to listen to him with childlike attentiveness as to how we can be missionaries of love. There is no better way to prepare our hearts to listen than to pray daily: "O God the Holy Spirit, guide and strengthen Pope Francis to be the sign and source of unity within the Church and incline our hearts to listen with the obedience of faith."

Follow Bishop Loverde on Twitter @Bishop_Loverde.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015