When Pope Francis arrives in the United States Tuesday afternoon to begin his week-long romp across America’s east coast, he is likely to be mobbed by politicians, press, and everyday Catholics clamoring for his blessing. He is scheduled to celebrate mass before huge audiences, address leaders of Congress, and speak before the United Nations. He, is in short, kind of a big deal.
But according to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, that Vatican’s Secretary of State, Francis will arrive to the United States not as a prominent dignitary, a head of state, or even the wildly popular leader of the world’s billion or so Catholics. Instead, he enters the country “as a migrant.”
According to the Catholic News Service, Parolin said last week that immigration will be “one of the most important themes” of the pope’s visit, during which he is expected to speak primarily in Spanish. The Cardinal noted that while America has a long history of immigration, the pope will likely articulate a pro-immigrant message meant to help a United States that is “facing the modern challenges of migration and resolving cases that are still painfully open.”
Drawing attention to the pope’s migrant status may sound like semantics, but is part of his consistent push to champion the rights of immigrants — including those entering the United States. In 2014, when the United States and Mexico first began to grapple with the flood of refugees — many of whom were children — fleeing horrific violence in Central America, Francis said the migrants should be “welcomed and protected.” In addition, he personally thanked teenagers who aided immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, and expressed interest in walking across the dividing line between the two nations, calling the idea “a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants.”
In fact, his support for immigrants will be literally on display while in the United States: When he officiates a huge mass later this week at Madison Square Garden, he will do so while sitting in a chair constructed by migrant day laborers. He is also expected to address the issue when he speaks to Congress on Wednesday.
Francis’s support for immigrants isn’t limited to the United States, of course, as he has repeatedly put immigration issues at the the center of his roughly two-year papacy. His first trip outside the Vatican was to visit Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean that harbors North African migrants seeking passage to Europe. He has condemned anti-immigrant hatred, and decried human trafficking as a dark industry that preys on those journeying from one nation to another. In 2013, he surprised 2,000 immigrants in a shelter near the Vatican with Christmas gifts. And earlier this year he sought to assist with Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis by demanding that every Catholic parish in the region take in a refugee family, saying those that don’t should pay property taxes because they’re not truly religious.
The pontiff’s embrace of immigrants is shared among most American Catholics, as well as most people of faith. In 2014, majorities of every major American Christian group told the Pew research center that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States as long as they meet certain requirements. A 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute reported similar results, noting that majorities of almost all American religious groups — including 62 percent of white Catholics and 74 percent of Hispanic Catholics — believe that undocumented immigrants should be given a pathway to citizenship if they meet certain criteria.