In first U.S. visit, Pope Francis – the ‘Evangelist-in-Chief’ – hopes to halt decline in country's Catholic population, VCU expert says

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Making his first trip to the United States, Pope Francis will arrive in Washington today and is slated to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor of religious studies in Virginia Commonwealth University's School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said that Pope Francis' visit comes amidst an "unprecedented decline" in the Catholic population in the U.S.

Pope Francis wears a dizzying array of hats, each one carefully suited for the occasion.

"Like a classic Argentine Peronist, Pope Francis wears a dizzying array of hats, each one carefully suited for the occasion. In Cuba he donned his mitres of Pope of the Periphery, Pope of the People and Evangelist-in-Chief. So which hat(s) has he chosen from his modest Vatican wardrobe for his maiden visit to the U.S.?"

"Since no one mitre would suit all occasions on American soil, expect the Argentine pontiff to wear several in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. There is no doubt, however, that Francis will most prominently sport the hat of Evangelist-in-Chief of the world’s largest Christian denomination, with 1.2 billion members. The American church is of vital importance to the Vatican because of its size and recent decline."

"With 51 million members, the U.S. church is the fourth largest in the world, behind Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. Until now it had held its own as mainline Protestants suffered catastrophic decline over the past decades. The latest survey from Pew Research, however, shows unprecedented decline with the percentage of the Catholic population dropping from 24 percent to 21 percent between 2007 and 2014. Although not nearly as dramatic as the long-term slide in Latin America, Catholic decline is now not only of regional dimensions but hemispheric."