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When Pope Francis arrives in America next month, he will undoubtedly find a very different country than did Paul VI, John Paul II, or Benedict XVI.

In the past decade, the culture of death has gained momentum (even as pro-life marches and valiant efforts to chip away at it continue), the sexual revolution has expanded into runaway legal and popular support for same-sex marriage and gender ideology, and religious liberty, once regarded as our country’s “first freedom,” has come under sustained attack.

All of which is aggravated by two additional factors: a mainstream media which is largely uninformed about religion, and often hostile to people of faith, and a growing number of self-professed Christians who are abetting the secularization of America.

This is the situation Pope Francis is about to step into—a step that will, no doubt, test the strength and effectiveness of his pontificate.

Since the Vatican announced that Francis would be visiting America, many commentators have declared that Francis would “challenge” the American public. But it is equally true that Americans will be challenging him right back. His once extraordinary popularity in America has declined in recent months, among both liberals and especially conservatives. Some of the former are beginning to realize that Francis does not have the ability to alter divine truth to accommodate fashionable notions about sex and gender—while many conservatives have convinced themselves that Francis is a dangerous radical, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

What is more, attempts to politicize the Pope have been rising, and are likely to get worse when he begins his American tour. Already, one liberal magazine has dubbed Republican Governor John Kasich “the Pope Francis candidate”—notwithstanding that Kasich wants to downgrade the gravity of abortion, and believes it is time to“move on” from defending traditional marriage, a major concern of Francis. Meanwhile, a conservative website has published a lurid article, depicting the pope as a socialist, entitled, “Will the Pope Endorse Bernie Sanders for President?”

But against these efforts to exploit and disparage the pope, Raymond Flynn, the former mayor of Boston, has wisely written:

Pope Francis’s historic first visit to the United States should not be an opportunity to score political points for any candidate, politician or party. But it should be a respectful opportunity for millions of Americans to hear the message of an important moral leader concerned about the ‘common good’ of all Americans, without it being played out in the media as a divisive political sideshow.

Since becoming Pope, Francis has fearlessly addressed the moral and political injustices that afflict the world, and has called for reform—in line with the principles of the Catechism. But he has been equally strong in saying that all such reforms need to begin with the spiritual conversion of individuals. In his Sunday Angelus just yesterday, he did so again

All that we have in the world does not satisfy our hunger for the infinite. We need Jesus, to remain with Him, to nourish ourselves at His table, on His words of eternal life! To believe in Jesus means making Him the center, the meaning of our life. Christ is not an accessory element: He is the ‘living bread,’ the indispensable nourishment. Attaching ourselves to Him, in a true relationship of faith and love, does not mean being chained, but rather, profoundly free.

Despite the many potential hazards that accompany Francis’s visit, we have ample reason to hope that his time in our country will be fruitful—not only that he will be well-received, but also that he will have many life-giving and thought-provoking words for the American people.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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