ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – As Pope Francis headed to Colombia on Wednesday, several countries on his flight path had compelling reasons for hoping he’d offer up a prayer for them: From the United States, where President Donald Trump’s recent decision to end DACA has left 800,000 people in an uncertain legal situation, to chronically crisis-gripped Venezuela.
In the telegrams popes customarily dispatch to the heads of state of countries they fly over, they almost never touch upon anything with even remotely political significance, and that was true of Francis’s one-sentence message to Trump on Wednesday.
“As I travel through United States airspace on my apostolic visit to Colombia, I extend warm greetings to you and your fellow citizens, invoking upon all of you almighty God’s abundant blessings,” read Francis’s note to Trump.
Francis will be in Colombia September 6-11, where he’s expected to appeal to the country to work toward national reconciliation after a decades-long civil war.
Puerto Rico, bracing for Irma
Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island and unincorporated U.S. territory, was bracing for Hurricane Irma as Pope Francis’s Alitalia AZ4000 flight took off from Rome, resulting in a diversion from the original flight plan to fly over the island.
Hurricane warnings have been issued for Antigua, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, as well as part of the Dominican Republic.
“We have to prepare for an event that we have never experienced here,” Governor Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico said at a news conference on Tuesday, saying Irma’s arrival was imminent. Trump has declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In the end, Francis didn’t send a message to Puerto Rico since he never crossed its airspace, but it’s reasonable to suppose it was on his mind anyway.
U.S. mainland and DACA
Five years after the Obama administration enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, protecting immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors from deportation, Trump vowed to terminate it if Congress does not come up with a permanent solution before March 5, 2018.
The program allowed qualifying individuals to apply for a residence permit to remain in the country for work or to continue their education. Tuesday’s announcement leaves an estimated 800,000 people with an uncertain legal fate.
Catholic bishops in the United States were unanimous in condemning Trump’s move. In a statement on Tuesday, the bishops’ conference released a statement calling the decision “regrettable.”
“This decision is unacceptable and does not reflect who we are as Americans,” they wrote. “We pledge our support to work on finding an expeditious means of protection for DACA youth…As people of faith, we say to DACA youth – regardless of your immigration status, you are children of God and welcome in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church supports you and will advocate for you.”
In addition, many prelates released their own statements and some even held press conferences, as was the case of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York, who joined Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“As a pastor, I can tell you these Dreamers are not criminals, aliens…intruders…they are us, they are our people,” he said. “To demonize them as threats or terrorists contradicts the bible, America, New York and common decency.
“Our dreamers are not partisan hockey pucks but children of God,” he added.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington described the decision as “very regrettable” and “harmful,” while Cardinal Joe Tobin of Newark referred to it as an “abandonment of humanity.”
There’s no way of telling whether Francis reflected on that debate as he crossed a sliver of the United States, but he did wish Americans “abundant blessings.”
Venezuela, a nation screaming for help
“As my apostolic visit to Colombia takes me over Venezuela, I send cordial greetings to Your Excellency and all the people of Venezuela,” Francis said in his message to Socialist President Maduro.
“Praying that all in the nation may promote paths of solidarity, justice, and concord, I willingly invoke upon all of you God’s blessings of peace,” he added.
In recent months many have questioned the Vatican’s alleged “soft” position on Venezuela, despite the fact that the pope’s top diplomat and former representative in the Latin American nation has been calling for national elections at least going as far back as December.
Some of this is due to Maduro’s constant attempts to create a gap between Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the Venezuelan bishops, who’ve long been a strong voice in favor of the people.
According to Maduro, Pope Francis’s right hand man has succumbed to the “violence against the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela’s legitimate government and Venezuela as a whole.
“The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the country has traditionally been allied to the sectors that held onto powers and privileges, and destroyed the country for almost a century,” Maduro said in August, speaking to little-known Radio Rebelde of Buenos Aires.
Venezuela, a country that holds some of the world’s largest oil reserves, has long been in a down spiral, with people starving to death and hospitals lacking medicine as basic as aspirin.
On Friday, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State called on Venezuela to suspend a Constituent Assembly, aimed at re-writing the national constitution. According to Maduro, the Vatican has succumbed to the “violence against the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela’s legitimate government and Venezuela as a whole.”
Though it’s not on the agenda, Pope Francis is expected to at least have an informal exchange with a group of Venezuelan bishops while he’s in Colombia. The prelates will be in Bogota to participate in a meeting the Argentine pontiff will have with the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM).