White House officials offered a quick view of their behind the scenes preparation as Pope Francis goes to Washington next week. One official, Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, perhaps let his professional guard down briefly during a press call on Sept. 17, betraying a little personal excitement as the arrival of Pope Francis approaches on Sept. 22. “I’d just say in the six and a half, seven years we’ve been here, even beyond the spiritual message, I think this pope has been able to strike a chord on issues that affect people around the globe,” Rhodes said.
“When you talk about inequality or climate change, these are not issues that are unique to the United States or any one part of the world. The pope has managed to find a way to talk about those issues as a church leader, but also…as an individual, that has resonated with audiences in a way that, frankly, other world leaders have not, and I think that’s part of what generates excitement in obviously the Catholic community, but also I think in much broader constituencies here in the United States and around the world.”
Rhodes added, “These are issues that are going to define our future, and the pope I think is providing an incredible sense of motivation that they can and must be addressed.
“If you look at the Sustainable Development Goals Conference at the U.N. and the effort to eliminate extreme poverty, or the efforts to combat global climate change, the pope’s voice could not be more timely and important.”
Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told reporters that the pope’s visit is being anticipated by Christian leaders across denominations and faiths judging by the guest list for the South Lawn welcoming ceremony on Sept. 23 she is preparing. “I think some of the things that strike other religious leaders is the way the pope has not only talked a certain message about caring for those in need, but how he has actually lived out that message,” Rogers said, “how he has visited prisons and…washed prisoners’ feet, how he has reached out to the homeless and invited them into the Vatican and installed showers so they can clean themselves.
“He has made efforts repeatedly to not just talk about this message of Jesus and the love of Christ for others, including the least of these,” she said, “but also embodied that message with his deeds. And I think people have found that to be profoundly inspiring across religions.”
White House officials said that after his welcoming ceremony, the pope would meet personally with President Obama, though they would not get into specifics about what would be on the discussion agenda. Charlie Kupchan, Senior Director for European Affairs, National Security Council, said he was working with a number of different offices within the administration to prepare for the meeting of the president and the pope. He has his work cut off for him. In the past year the Vatican and Pope Francis have issued statements on a number of geo-political, economic and humanitarian issues—from conflict resolution in Syria and Iraq, the global migration crisis and sustainable development to religious freedom, youth unemployment and the possibility of a global ban on nuclear weapons.
None of the officials were willing to speculate on what the pope might say when he gets to Washington, either privately with the president or publicly in his unprecedented speech before Congress. “The pope sets his own agenda and speaks his own mind and has his own pastoral mission,” said Rhodes. “And 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.
“He’s demonstrated himself to be a very candid and principled voice on a whole host of issues.”
The White House officials did suggest that some of what Pope Francis might have to say could give a bump to the administration’s policy agenda in Congress. “When it comes to the policies of our administration and the priorities that the president sets,” Rhodes said, “there are a whole host of issues where there is much common ground with the mission of the Vatican.
“I think whatever the issue is, we welcome the pope’s voice and leadership.”
“We are fully expecting that there will be some messages with which we may respectfully disagree or have differences,” Kupchan said, “but that on many of the big-ticket items…like climate change, like fighting inequality, like fighting poverty, like reaching out to people in distress and people in need, his essential messages will resonate very much with the president’s agenda. And in that respect, we are hoping that his moral authority helps us advance many of the items that we take to be very high on our policy agenda.”