NEW YORK — When Pope Francis sets foot on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington on Sept. 22, it won’t just be his first time in the United States as pontiff. It will be his first time in the country – ever in his life.

The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, never followed the footsteps of so many fellow Roman Catholic leaders of his rank, who sought to raise their profiles, along with funds for missions back home, by networking within the influential U.S. church.

This gap in his resume can be explained in part by Francis’ personality. He felt a profound obligation to stay near the people of his archdiocese. He also famously opposed ladder-climbing, condemning what he called “airport bishops” who spend more time traveling for their own prestige or pleasure than serving their flock.

Still, Francis’ lack of firsthand experience of the U.S. stands out for many, especially those struggling to absorb his unsparing critique of the excesses of global capitalism and wondering whether this first Latin American pope harbors resentment over the history of U.S. policies in his native region.

“This trip to the United States will be the most difficult, the most challenging, and the most interesting because he’s exploring a world that for him is more foreign than Asia, than the Philippines,” where Francis traveled last January, said Massimo Faggioli, an expert in church history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “It’s not just a language barrier. It’s a cultural barrier.”


Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, an Argentine and one of Francis’ key advisers at the Vatican, disputed the perception that the pope disliked the United States. Francis’ view that a global economic system focused on maximizing profits was destroying the poor and the environment has landed hard in a country considered the world headquarters for capitalism.

Sanchez Sorondo insisted Francis is not anti-capitalist and said the pope admires America for the principles of the Founding Fathers, who influenced the independence movement in his native Argentina. But Francis’ outlook is also shaped by another history, including U.S. ties with Latin American dictators, America’s treatment of immigrants, and longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba, Sanchez Sorondo said. Francis recently helped negotiate a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations that has led to restored diplomatic ties between the countries.

“I don’t think the pope has anything against America,” Sanchez Sorondo said. “What the pope might have is that he felt the repercussions of America in Latin America.”

This is utterly new ground as well for American Catholics, accustomed to Francis’ immediate predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both lived through World War II, when Americans were considered liberators and generous benefactors who rebuilt the war-ravaged continent.

“Pope Francis – his cultural roots, his formation – is completely different,” Faggioli said.

Among those experiences was the 2001 Argentine economic crisis, which sparked riots, unemployment and a quick succession of presidents as the government struggled to handle its debts. Bergoglio was intimately involved in trying to help Argentines and their leaders emerge from the turmoil, which many blamed on free-market policies promoted by the U.S.

Dubbed the “slum pope” for his dedication to the poor, he spent much of his time as archbishop in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. In the 1980s, when Bergoglio was sent to Germany for a few months for doctoral studies, he grew so homesick that he spent some nights watching planes take off from the airport for Argentina.

“It’s not at all surprising to me that he hasn’t been here,” said the Rev. Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of the Jesuit magazine America, based in New York. “His whole life has been devoted to the people of Argentina and South America.”

His introduction to the U.S. will begin with a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, followed by an address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and outdoor Mass at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

But he will start the journey earlier and somewhere much more familiar, in Cuba, where from Sept. 19 to 22 he will mark the country’s new era with the U.S.

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