Pope Francis will remain within the tradition of previous papal visits to the U.S. when he comes to the east coast this autumn said Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, who added that the Pope's voyage would build upon Benedict XVI's papacy if he addresses the environment. “Pope Benedict initiated a lot of commentary on climate change,” Bishop Soto explained, “and I think Pope Francis is going to be pushing that significantly, especially from the perspective of how that affects the poor.” Benedict talked repeatedly about the need to care for the environment as God’s creation, and made the theme of the 2010 World Day of Peace “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.” During his 2008 visit to the U.S., he told the United Nations General Assembly that “international action to preserve the environment and to protect various forms of life on earth must not only guarantee a rational use of technology and science, but must also rediscover the authentic image of creation.” Pope Francis, meanwhile, has written an encyclical on ecology which is expected to be published this summer. He too has often spoken out about the need to protect creation. “This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: changing to a form of development which seeks to respect creation,” he said at a meeting with laborers at the University of Molise on July 5, 2014. “I see America — my homeland, too: many forests, stripped, which become land that cannot be cultivated, which cannot give life. This is our sin: exploiting the land and not allowing it to give us what it has within it, with our help through cultivation.” Pope Francis will make a three-stop tour of the U.S. east coast in September, first to Washington, D.C. where he will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 23. He will meet with President Obama in the White House and address a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24. He will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25, and then head to Philadelphia for the culmination of his visit, the World Meeting of Families, on Sept. 26 and 27. An estimated 1 million are expected to attend his Sept. 27 Mass. Bishop Soto spoke about the upcoming visit with CNA at a Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty in Washington, D.C. on May 11, hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. He took part in a panel discussion on poverty and also addressed reporters about the need to overcome the tolerance of injustices such as the high incarceration rate among the poor. Poverty and the family are intricately connected, and the Church must address poverty if it seeks to support families worldwide, he explained. Environmental problems — particularly a severe drought — acutely affect the poor in Bishop Soto’s Sacramento diocese, which spans northern California. Unemployment pushes 20 percent in some largely agricultural parts of his diocese, he said. He cited an Environmental Protection Agency report showing the worst environmental problems are also in the poorest areas of the state. There are social problems affecting the family, he reflected, and with the World Meeting of Families and the Synod on the Family coming this autumn, the Church has an opportunity to address these issues. Family poverty in the U.S. is exacerbated by problems in the immigration and education systems, he said. The lack of a comprehensive immigration reform bill has kept immigrants in California from starting businesses and establishing themselves in society. The public education system has also failed poor families, he said. “Public education in California is not serving well our families, immigrant families and working-class families. Their children are not getting the kind of education they deserve, and that is undermining their ability to escape the cycles of poverty, and so with poor educational outcomes … those children get caught up in cycles that are very hard to escape.” “There seems to be almost a reluctance to want to have parents have too much choice in how schools do their job,” he said. “I do think that we have to continue to explore how to engage parents and families in the education of children. And charter schools is one way to do that. And if there are other ways, better ways to do that, then we'll explore that.” And here is an opportunity for the Church to reach families, through parochial schools. There is a “national inquietude” on the matter of Catholic schools reaching out to low-income families and changing the trajectory of poverty for many children, he said. “Catholic schools not only produce, I believe, good Catholics, but also produce good citizens. And so how can we use that formula that worked so well and make sure that it's serving immigrant and working class families better.” With the 2016 presidential election looming, that brings other social concerns of civic disengagement and the marginalization of religion to the forefront, he acknowledged. “I am concerned that there is a tendency to want to push religious discourse off to the margins,” he said of the 2016 presidential election prospects. Catholic institutions already do much for the poor in the U.S. “And I hope that the candidates will see the value of having vigorous, vibrant religious institutions, like Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, Catholic social services involved as partners in society, and their ability to be able to participate while maintaining the integrity of their institutions,” he said. The silencing of faith in public life was something Benedict addressed in his previous visit to the U.S., Bishop Soto said, and Pope Francis will call attention to it through the lens of the Church’s role in serving the poor. “He's also going to challenge us as pastors to go further,” the bishop said, “to ‘smell like the sheep’ and really take the Church back to its primary mission … of announcing the good news to the poor.” The recent unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson has also highlighted the danger of civic disengagement, he continued. While noting that some of the protests were peaceful and some were not, he added that “part of that is they want their voice to be heard. What that is is the condemnation of the political process, that doesn't allow that voice to be heard.” “There's a serious disengagement of people, and that is not good for our political system,” he continued. “Voter participation in California is dismal, and that doesn't bode well for the social covenant when a lot of people, for whatever reasons, are disengaged.”
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