Pope Francis this morning is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly to help the organization celebrate its 70th anniversary. After hosting a non-denominational service at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, he’ll visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, lead a procession through Central Park and then conduct Mass tonight at Madison Square Garden. After that he’s on to Philadelphia—including a special visit to Independence Hall—and will conclude his American visit with a Mass and comments before the World Meeting of Families.

The first ‘high tech’ pope

Pope Francis this week spoke before enormous crowds and is clearly the first “interactive” pontiff who is said to regularly tweet, has a Facebook page and has made great use of social media to spread the Gospels around the world. It is always a moving experience for Catholics—and people of faith in general—to welcome the pope to their respective homelands, but this visit to the Western Hemisphere may mark a turning point in the Vatican’s influence on nationstates, and its opinion of world affairs.

This pope is making a point of spending time with people on the bottom rungs of American society such as day laborers, refugees, the homeless, prisoners and under-served children. He is using the grand stage of his trip to demonstrate that the church exists to serve the poor and marginalized, and that this is the responsibility of all persons of faith—not just Catholics—whether they be a pontiff or a parishioner. Outside of his Thursday address to a joint session of Congress, the pope is expected to meet with people who may represent various causes he has taken up as he urges world leaders and the 1.15 billion Roman Catholics to be “shepherds” to lift up their humblest neighbors.

One-fourth of Americans are Catholic

This is particularly true to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. The vast majority of these persons are Latino, and if they are persons of faith they are likely Catholic. The Catholic Church is by far the largest denomination in the United States, with more than 68 million parishioners. By comparison, the next-biggest faith group, the Southern Baptist Convention, accounts for 15.5 million members. About one-quarter of Americans identify as Catholic. Through immigration and a traditionally high birth rate, Latinos make up 35 percent of the U.S. Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest diocese with about 5 million professing members, is about 70 percent Latino and is comprised of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Pope Francis, much like Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and Cardinal Roger Mahoney before him, is an advocate of poor, displaced immigrant families who are facing increasing pressure in the United States to either not come here or, as a former presidential nominee once suggested, “self deport,” in order to help ease the burden on already stretched state and county budgets. The perils of immigration are being further played out in Europe as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are traveling more than 1,300 miles to Europe to escape starvation and death in their native homeland.

Welcoming Saint Serra

The pope’s visit to the Americas (he visited Cuba last weekend) has not been lost on the local church. While in the nation’s capitol, he canonized Spanish missionary Father Junipero Serra, a man alternately considered a hero and a villain in California. The Franciscan friar is credited with founding the first of 21 Roman Catholic missions in California in the mid-18th Century. Some historians have accused Father Serra of brutal treatment toward Native Indians in the course of baptizing about 6,000 of the original Californians. Eventually, more than 80,000 Native Indians were baptized before the missions were secularized in the 1830s.

“Father Serra was a man of the 18th Century. Although his work may have come at the expense of native peoples, he did advocate for good treatment of the original people of California,” said Father Leo Dechant of Father Serra Parish in Lancaster. He was among the tens of thousands of people who attended Pope Francis’ visit on the East Coast. “I’m very excited to attend. I’ll likely be in the ‘peanut gallery,’ but I could not miss this opportunity to see the Holy Father and witness the canonization of Father Serra.”

Father Dechant said he has studied the life and work of Father Serra since childhood. “He was a fascinating man who left a college professorship to come to the New World,” he said. “I hope people will listen to [Pope Francis] message of hope and peace and take back with them ideas on how to better serve their neighbors and community.” The youth group at Father Serra Parish will conduct a special community service program called “Life Team Group” event on Sunday at the church.

Latinos ‘save’ U.S. church?

Pope Francis this week was expected to speak on immigration, specifically the large population of Latinos from Mexico and Central America who over the past 30 years have come to America fleeing war, displacement and poverty. If not for the increasing Latino population, the U.S. Catholic church would likely face a shortfall of believers. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 9 percent of Americans said they were reared Catholic but were no longer part of the faith in any way. Another group, often dubbed “cultural Catholics,” are said to identify with the faith but almost never set foot in church on Sunday morning. Since 1977, weekly Mass attendance in the United States has reportedly fallen from 41 percent to 24 percent of adult Catholics. New York City is in the process of closing or merging nearly one-third of its parishes. Chicago, since 2005, has posted the fourth-highest losses of any U.S. diocese. On the East Coast and in the Midwest, bishops are closing or merging parishes and shuttering parochial schools built by past generations of European immigrants. In many parishes, worshipers are sparse, funerals outnumber baptisms and Sunday morning collections are not enough for regular maintenance of houses of worship.

The U.S. church is suffering a shortage of priests. In 1965, there were about 59,000 priests. Now there are less than 38,000 with about 3,500 of the nation’s more than 17,000 parishes without a resident priest. With about 40 percent of U.S. priests over age 65, dioceses may be bracing for a wave of retirements that could leave even more pulpits empty. More than one-third of America’s 68 million registered Catholics are Latino, but only 28 of the 270 active bishops are Latino.

‘Face of church is changing’

“The ethnic face of the church is changing, and the center of gravity and influence in the church is shifting from the East to the West, and from the North to the South,” Archbishop Gomez said. “Pope Francis knows all of this. He knows the face of the church is changing, and he knows the country’s Latino Catholic heritage, and he knows how important Latinos are for the future of the church.”

Archbishop Gomez said that last year the Archdiocese of Los Angeles baptized almost 70,000 infants—more than the total of the infant baptisms in the archdioceses of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., combined.

Issues such as the sexual abuse scandals, the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood, and the rejection of gay relationships and birth control have, in part, contributed to a decline in membership, particularly among non-immigrant Catholics. The crowds this week in Washington and in New York would appear to defy those issues. Two years into his papacy, Pope Francis is beloved. A poll conducted recently by the New York Times and CBS News shows that Pope Francis’ visit to the United States came during a wave of good will among American Catholics: 63 percent of those polled have a favorable opinion of him, far above the 43 percent peak for his predecessor, the retired Benedict XVI, and nearly in line with the high mark for John Paul II in 2002 when 69 percent of Catholics said they viewed him favorably.

The ‘21st century’ Catholic

The poll also demonstrated that Pope Francis has convinced many American Catholics that the church is more “in touch” with their modern needs. A majority, 53 percent, said the church was in touch with Catholics’ needs, up from 39 percent in 2013. This finding represented the biggest shift in opinion since pollsters began asking the question in 1987. But there are some divisions. Another majority of Catholics in the Northeast—53 percent—said the church was “out of touch” with the needs of 21st century Catholics, compared with 38 percent of Catholics in the West and 29 percent of Catholics in the South.

NBC News conducted a poll just prior to the pope’s arrival in Cuba. It found that Americans who consider themselves “liberal” consider the pope as liberal. The same was true of “moderate” and “conservative” respondents.

With the political season underway in the run for the White House, 71 percent of respondents said they would be uncomfortable with a presidential candidate who did not believe in God. About one-third of those polled said that if the next U.S. president is Catholic, they believe that he or she would be beholden to the Vatican. That assumption was emphatically discounted in 1960 when President John F. Kennedy—the nation’s first and only Catholic president—said his administration intended to act completely independent of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis also spoke on the widening world gap between rich and poor persons. The NBC poll found 63 percent of respondents acknowledging that you cannot be a “good Catholic” if you placed your own financial gain over the well-being of your brethren, thereby echoing the pope’s focus on economic disparity, particularly in the industrialized world.

Charitable giving is a constant

In reference to finances, the U.S. Catholic church is one of the wealthiest in the world—and is among the premier donors to the Vatican. The Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University reported recently that while individual dioceses and parishes across the country are struggling—some of which operate at a loss—the facts have not discouraged charitable giving. The U.S. Catholic church, through its network of charities, schools and hospitals, is one of the nation’s largest service providers. Catholic Charities, for instance, maintains a yearly budget of $4 billion to help the poor and homeless, provides adoption services and resettles immigrants and refugees. As well, Catholic Relief Services—the bishops’ humanitarian arm which receives significant government monetary assistance—remains a major force in development and disaster relief services overseas. Still, the cost of the child sex-abuse scandal has added additional strain to the U.S. Catholic church with a dozen U.S. dioceses seeking bankruptcy protection from abuse claims.