VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis makes last-minute preparations for his epic 10-day journey to Cuba and the U.S.— including private tutoring to help him polish his English—the list of people hoping to bend the pontiff’s ear is growing. And as the Vatican scrambles to formalize the final details, it admits it “can rule out nothing with this pope.”
The pope’s first stop will be Havana, Cuba, Saturday night, where he is expected to be greeted at the airport by Raul Castro, who famously quipped that he admired Francis so much he might return to the church on a visit to Rome this spring. But the Vatican announced he may also pay a visit to the ailing Fidel Castro, who apparently requested face-to-face time. That meeting is “likely” to happen though no details are finalized, said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who has, by now, become quite accustomed to playing the public-relations equivalent of “whack a mole” with the pope’s whims.
A meeting that is less likely to happen, according to the Vatican, is one between Francis and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC guerrillas, who have been pleading to meet the pope. “We want to give a heartfelt greeting to Pope Francis,” said Ivan Marquez, speaking for FARC, last month. “We hope to have this opportunity.”
Others who no doubt would like to meet the pope are the 3,522 mostly female, minor, ill, or aging prisoners who the Cuban government promised to pardon as a “humanitarian gesture” ahead of the papal visit—something the Cuban government has done before previous Vatican visits as well. Some will be part of the audience when the pope addresses Cuban Catholics at a giant open-air Sunday morning Mass in Havana’s Revolution Plaza under a massive mural homage to Che Guevera with the words, Hasta la Victoria Siempre, or “Always Toward Victory.”
The Vatican says Catholics make up more than 60 percent of Cuba’s population, despite a recent survey that puts the number closer to 30 percent.
The pope will then move on to Holguin, where he will give his blessing to a city no pope has ever visited and where he will greet oppressed Catholics before making a final stop on his Cuban call at the country’s most sacred shrine, Our Lady of Charity at El Cobre, outside Santiago de Cuba. A number of groups, including one hoping to reinstate Catholic school education in Cuba, are not on the papal agenda yet.
He then returns briefly to Havana to bid Castro adieu at an airport ceremony before flying to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, where he will be greeted by Barack Obama during what will be the president’s first tarmac appearance for an arriving dignitary.
The Vatican does not exclude “spontaneous stops” along the way of the Cuba leg to bless basilicas and meet with marginalized Catholics, but he will have scarce chance for such spontaneity in the U.S., where he will have to follow the rules of the Secret Service, which is leading the security detail.
On Wednesday morning, he will take part in a welcoming ceremony at the White House attended by two outspoken Catholic gay activists, a nun who supports abortion, and a transgender woman with whom he has agreed to meet.
Francis tops off his first day in the U.S. with a controversial ceremony where he will canonize Junipero Serra at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A group of California Native American protesters who have called the canonization a celebration of genocide hope to meet the pope to explain why making Serra a saint is wrong, though they are unlikely to get the chance to voice their concerns.
On Thursday, Francis will become the first pope to address a Joint Session of the United States Congress, where he is expected to rail against lawmakers for dragging their feet on climate change and immigration reform. There, any number of the many Catholic Republican presidential candidates are likely looking for a photo opportunity with the pontiff, though the Vatican implied that he will be on a tight leash in the Capitol.
Victims of priest sex abuse have also asked to meet with the pope in any of the three U.S. cities he is visiting, and it is possible that he may have time to squeeze in such a meeting before he leaves Washington for New York, but the Vatican says such a meeting will only be discussed “after the fact if such a meeting occurs.”
Several other groups, including 100 Women, 100 Miles, which champions immigration reform, are hoping for a chance to catch Francis’s eye when he is in the nation’s capital as well, as are a host of gay-rights activists hoping for changes in church doctrine on same-sex unions ahead of the major Synod meeting in Rome in October. And a number of women’s groups who would like to see a woman behind the altar, or at least in a high-ranking Vatican position, have asked to be heard.
The pope then jets to New York City for a full agenda of Masses and meetings, and where many expect he will ask to meet with the city’s homeless to offer his support as he has so famously done in Rome by offering private Vatican museum tours and installing showers and bathrooms in St. Peter’s Square.
On Friday, Francis will address the UN General Assembly, where rumors are swirling that he will privately greet both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom have reportedly put in official requests for such an encounter. The Vatican spokesman this week said neither meeting was on the agenda, but conceded that he really had no idea what the pope might do if presented with the opportunity.
The pope will then attend a multidenominational service at the 9/11 Memorial Museum at ground zero, where is expected to meet survivors and emergency workers. After that, he heads to East Harlem and plans to take a whirl through Central Park in his papalcade, which will be his only open-air outing in New York City. Every other appearance is strictly ticket-only.
He will then celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden near a somewhat garish billboard of his likeness, which, if anyone has been paying attention to anything about this pope since his election, is likely to be cringeworthy for the selfless pontiff.
On Saturday, the papal entourage will head to Philadelphia, where he will tend to a variety of papal duties before he makes his mark as the main attraction at the Catholic World Meeting of Families. Singer Aretha Franklin and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli are featured performers and expected to greet the pope personally.
On Sunday, he will meet 100 prisoners and their families at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility before celebrating the concluding Mass at the World Meeting of Families. Before he jets back to Rome Sunday evening, he is expected to meet organizers and volunteers, but he may also make time for special groups like those against the death penalty who have been clamoring to meet him.
Even if he does stick to the schedule and in the unlikely event that he doesn’t add any surprise stops or spontaneous meetings, Francis will have met with more dignitaries and ordinary people than any other pontiff on any apostolic visit. But knowing how this pope operates, there is very little doubt that, despite the full itinerary, the highlight of the trip is yet unknown.