Pope Francis Addresses America

Yesterday Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress, and in doing so he addressed the America people. He did so not as a politician (though he is a head of state), but as a pastor. As a pastor he speaks with a different voice, though he addresses serious political issues. In the course of his speech he addressed such issues as climate change, economics, immigration, war and peace, the death penalty, the family.  In making his case he focused on the issues that he has been focusing on -- especially the issues of poverty and climate. He addressed the serious challenges being posed by world conflicts and embraced his role as bridge builder (Cuba-USA?). Those who see the world from a political perspective will try to place him on a left/right axis, but to do so will not prove successful. 

He is a shrewd politician (he was selected in part to deal with the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy that Benedict XVI could not handle), but he is also a prophetic voice.  For those who want him to side with them on their projects, he will have disappointed. He didn't let himself become a tool of political forces. For those of us who might want him to open the doors of the church to embrace women priests or same-sex marriage, will not be satisfied. But then those who want to close the borders and cut social programs will also find themselves at odds with him. It is interesting how we want a figure like Francis to stay out of politics when it suits our needs and to get involved when it suits our purposes.

What he did was call on the nation's leaders to fulfill its vocation to to pursue the common good.  Consider:

Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.

What I found profoundly interesting is the choice of four Americans -- two of whom were revered Catholics, a martyred Baptist preacher, and what we might anachronistically call a "spiritual but not religious" President -- to highlight. These four Americans Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, exemplified the American spirit that the Pope wished to engage. He called on the nation to look to figures such as these for inspiration and guidance.  Consider then these closing words of the speech: 

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to "dream" of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton. 
In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

In this speech to the nation (and Congress, the Cabinet, and some members of the Supreme Court) he called upon our nation to reach down deep and tap into our better angels. He spoke of the important voice that the religious community can have to further this work of liberty, equality, justice, and dialogue.  

As I've tried to argue here and in my book of a few years back, there is a place for Faith in the Public Square.  I think that Pope Francis gave us a taste of how that might work! He also showed the politicians that he wasn't one of them when he decided to skip lunch with them and eat with the homeless instead!


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