ROME — A Vatican spokesman forecast Tuesday that Pope Francis’ Sept. 19-27 outing to Cuba and the United States will be both “very long” and “very complex,” in part because of what’s already on his formal agenda, and, in part, for what’s not there yet.
In order, the Rev. Federico Lombardi on Tuesday:
- Said an unplanned meeting with Cuba’s former leader, Fidel Castro, while Francis is in Havana is “likely”;
- Declined to comment on the possibility of a meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse in the United States, but said that if it happens the media will be informed in a “timely” fashion;
- Basically squashed rumors of a tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations.
If any of those things come to pass, they would represent last-minute additions to what is already the longest foreign trip of Francis’ papacy to date, one that will take him to three cities in Cuba and three more in the United States over the course of nine grueling days (10 if you count his travel time to and from Rome).
Without offering specifics, Lombardi said that Pope Francis has done his homework in advance of his departure.
“He’s very well prepared for this trip, knowing that it’s very important,” Lombardi said.
In part, Lombardi said, Francis has been studying up because this is the first time in his life he’ll be in the United States, not to mention basically his first time in Cuba. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Lombardi said, the future pope once had a brief layover at a Cuban airport, but never went outside.
On the subject of a meeting between Francis and Cuba’s aging former leader, Fidel Castro, Lombardi said “it has not yet been formally planned,” but described it as “likely,” saying it would probably come either on Saturday, Sept. 19, or Sunday, Sept. 20, which are the days Francis will be in the capital city of Havana.
If so, Francis will make the third pope that Fidel Castro has welcomed to Cuba. He hosted the late Pope John Paul II in 1998, the first time a pontiff visited the island nation, and had a private encounter with Benedict XVI in 2012, despite having already transferred power to his brother Raul.
In the run-up to the pope’s US visit, Vatican sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the trip, said that a meeting with abuse victims was also probable, but cautioned that details are still being worked out.
In the past, the Vatican’s practice has been not to announce these sessions in advance, but rather to issue a brief statement later confirming that they took place. They’re generally small groups of five or six victims selected by the local bishops.
The first such meeting in history came the last time a pope visited the United States, when Benedict XVI was in Washington, DC, in April 2008. Benedict met with victims at least five other times during the course of his papacy.
Francis likewise met a group of six victims, two each from Ireland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, at his residence on Vatican grounds in July 2014. They also joined the pontiff for his morning Mass that day.
In his homily on the occasion, Francis vowed that any bishop who fails to protect minors “will be held accountable.”
If such a session indeed occurs in the United States, it would be the first time Francis meets victims outside the Vatican.
On past occasions, abuse victims and their advocates have had mixed reactions to these sessions. Some see them as proof the pope wants to hear victims’ voices, while others view them as more akin to a PR gesture.
The hypothesis of a meeting with Putin, meanwhile, stems from the fact that Francis is scheduled to meet with the president of the UN Security Council while he visits UN headquarters in New York to address the General Assembly.
At the moment, Russia holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, and if Putin were also on hand, that would mean he would be the one to greet the pontiff. However, Lombardi said there are no plans for Putin to be present.
Lombardi also declined comment on the idea of a meeting between Pope Francis and Chinese President President Xi Jinping, which has excited some pundits and bloggers since it was announced that Xi is scheduled to be in both Washington and New York at roughly the same time as the pontiff.
“I have no information that such a meeting is being considered,” he told reporters.
For the record, Francis met Putin in the Vatican in June, the second such encounter between the two men. The pontiff has not yet met Xi, but sent a personal letter through an Argentine friend in September 2014 inviting Xi to visit him in the Vatican and expressing his willingness to travel “tomorrow” to Beijing for the same purpose.
While Lombardi seemed to think that a meeting between Francis and the Chinese leader is a long shot, he offered a line in a different context that seems to pretty much sum it up where this maverick pontiff is concerned.
“Nothing can be excluded with this pope,” he said.