Good Yontif, Pontiff
by Lynn Sweet
WASHINGTON – The Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis to the U.S. starts hours before Kol Nidre on Tuesday, when he arrives at Joint Base Andrews in the Maryland suburbs from a historic visit to Cuba.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill will greet the Pope when he lands. The Pope will depart for New York on Thursday afternoon and return to Rome on Sunday, leaving from Philadelphia.
This city has been getting ready for weeks to host the popular – and populist – pope. His policies and preaching are simpatico with Obama, especially on climate change and immigration, though they differ on abortion and same-sex marriage. What could not be avoided, however, was scheduling the White House visit for Pope Francis on Wednesday, Yom Kippur.
The Vatican and the White House had to juggle some options. Pope Francis on Thursday becomes the first pope to deliver an address to a joint meeting of Congress. Doing that on Wednesday was out of the question because the House and Senate are never in session on Yom Kippur.
“The Holy Father has a very complicated schedule for this trip, so we worked with that schedule as best we could,” said Melissa Rogers, the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Rogers commented after White House aides briefing reporters on the Pope’s trip were asked about the intersection of the visit and Yom Kippur. “Other parts of the Washington, DC visit won’t overlap with Yom Kippur. And there are also going to be opportunities for people of different faiths to participate in events in the New York and Philadelphia legs of the Pope’s visit,” Rogers said.
Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, said the White House was further boxed in when it came to scheduling because the Pope has to be at the United Nations on Friday for a session on the Sustainable Development Goals and in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. “And so there will be members of the Jewish community who will be able to participate in these other elements of the Pope’s visit that don’t fall on Yom Kippur, and we were very mindful — as was the Vatican — in ensuring that that would be the case, knowing that his time here was going to overlap with Yom Kippur,” Rhodes said.
He added, “But I think the Vatican was very accommodating, and we were very focused on ensuring that the American Jewish community would be able to participate in important interfaith efforts to be a part of this visit of the Pope.”
While Washington-area Jews are observing Yom Kippur, the rest of the city will be almost shut down because of heightened security and crowds associated with the Pope’s visit. After the White House, the Pope leads a Papal Parade along the Ellipse and the National Mall. After that, he presides over prayers with bishops from across the U.S. at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and then celebrates a Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Biden will also attend.
While Obama and the Pope have a lot in common, Rhodes said, “I think, frankly, the Pope sets his own agenda and speaks his own mind and has his own pastoral mission. And we would not expect in any way the Pope to influence — we would not in any way want to create any expectation that the Pope is going to be a voice in U.S. domestic political issues.
“I think the Pope in many ways operates at a different plane of being a spiritual and moral leader. So I think we’d be very sensitive to not suggest that the Pope’s visit and his words are inserted into our own domestic politics. He’ll make his own determinations and I’m sure he’ll speak his mind,” Rhodes said. “And he’s demonstrated himself to be a very candid and principled voice on a whole host of issues.”