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Pope Francis, on U.S. Visit, Will Reach Out to the Struggling - New York Times

By Andy Newman and Vivian Yee
SEPTEMBER 16, 2015
PHILADELPHIA — Amanda Cortes is not anyone’s idea of a dignitary.

She grew up poor in an overcrowded house. She worked for years as a phone-sex operator. Since 2010, she has been awaiting trial in Philadelphia on charges that she brutally murdered her infant son.

But on Sept. 27, she will meet the pope.

So will Irma Barragan, who was 16 when her parents paid a smuggler to take her across the border from Mexico. Pope Francis will visit an East Harlem school on Sept. 25 to personally thank her and other immigrant women who are embroidering the altar linens he will use when he offers Mass at Madison Square Garden.

“When I see him on the news, I feel very moved, almost like I want to cry,” said Ms. Barragan, 37. She said she trembled to think of simply laying a hand on the man who physically embodies her faith. “If I am there and I have the opportunity to,” she said, “I will touch him.”

A papal visit is always an occasion of high ceremony and high-level politics. When Francis comes to the East Coast next week, he will, like his predecessors, visit the president and address the United Nations. He will pray with bishops. He will celebrate Mass before enormous crowds.

But to an unparalleled degree, this pope is making a point of spending time with people on the bottom rungs of American society: day laborers, refugees, the homeless, underprivileged schoolchildren and prisoners.

Like no pope before him, Francis is using the grand stage of his trip to the United States to demonstrate that the church exists to serve the poor and marginalized, and that this is the responsibility of all Catholics — whether pontiff or parishioner.

In Washington, Philadelphia and New York, Francis has seven events scheduled at which he will interact with ordinary people. Previous papal trips to the United States — there have been five extended ones — have included only one or two such meetings, at most.

These meetings are expected to be brief and largely symbolic: Each group the pope will visit represents a cause he has taken up, as he urges world leaders and the 1.15 billion Roman Catholics he shepherds to lift up their humblest neighbors.

For the approximately 900 people who will spend time with the pope, though, the symbolism is reality, and many are anticipating the moment with a mix of powerful emotions. Especially for those who are poor and struggling, meeting the pope amounts to a brush with grace, and a rare public honor.

In Philadelphia, he will minister to 100 inmates and their families at the city’s largest jail.

At a church in Washington, he will meet and bless about 250 participants in assistance programs run by Catholic Charities.

Among them will be Rudolph Washington, 48, for whom the papal audience is one more dramatic turn in a tumultuous life that has included dealing drugs, a car crash that damaged his brain and left him temporarily paralyzed and, through a rehabilitation program for ex-prisoners, a leadership role in an Alcoholics Anonymous group.

Though Mr. Washington is a Baptist, he has been studying up on the pope and likes what he sees.

“I’m looking at a world leader, a religious leader, but also I look at the example that he brings, that he’s a humble guy,” he said.

Those who will meet the pope were chosen based on considerations that were as often practical as spiritual.

At Our Lady Queen of Angels elementary school in East Harlem, the third and fourth graders in the classroom the pope will visit must endure a lengthy pre-pope security lockdown and an intense news media presence.

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