Stunning is the word that most comes to me after Pope Francis’ two-day visit to Washington, D.C. The country and the media was reveling in his presence, using language like “amazing,” “incredible,” and “wonderful” in response to this extraordinary moral leader who literally transformed our public discourse in the 48 hours he was in the nation’s capital. What these two extraordinary days mean going forward is the big question on all our hearts and minds.
At the formal welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House, a very traditional template was transformed by the “Vicar of Christ,” whose presence turned everyone’s language to one reference after another to those Christ called “the least of these” in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Never have I heard the most vulnerable being the most talked about in this city.
President Obama began the pope’s visit with these words, “What a beautiful day the Lord has made.”
Indeed. Then Pope Francis introduced himself to America as “a son of an immigrant family” who was “happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
Later he went on to call us to “accepting the urgency. [I]t seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generations.”
Not clear to some political leaders — but clear to the Holy Father. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church — 1.2 billion global souls — called for the “care of our common home,” then lifted up the spirit of hope that defined his entire visit and was my favorite line of the week:
“For we know that things can change.”
In between the official events, Pope Francis seemed happiest when he was moving between ordinary people and encountering (one of his favorite words) the people of America, especially the children.
Yesterday, Sept. 24, Pope Francis delivered his own version of a State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress — one like no other in our nation’s history.
Yes, he spoke powerfully on a number of critical public issues, but he began by calling the political representatives of this country to their proper purpose and vocation as servant leaders.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
The pope cautioned against polarization, and basically told them they should work together — a very radical call in Washington’s ideological and vitriolic divided politics.
Pope Francis’ largest and longest standing ovation from Congress came when he reminded the lawmakers of the Golden Rule — something I never would have imagined.
He spoke of “a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” and how “on this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones…”
The pope said we need to learn, "not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation … always humane, just, and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' (Matt. 7:12)."
That’s when all the politicians stood up and clapped.
But the most stunning thing to me was when Pope Francis brought to our attention, in a joint session of the Congress, four examples of extraordinary figures from American history to illustrate his moral convictions about how to serve the common good. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. were great choices but seemed less a surprise, but then he also named Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton; who — along with King — have regularly graced our covers and articles here at Sojourners. I really couldn’t believe it.
For the pope, each of these figures symbolizes a different American dream. In describing them, he said,
“President Abraham Lincoln — liberty; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — racial justice and inclusion; the founder of the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day — social justice and the priority of the poor; and Thomas Merton, the contemplative priest — the capacity for openness to God and a dialogue with others, even those of other faiths, with whom we need to build bridges.”
Neither Catholic mentioned — Dorothy Day, working with the poor everyday on the lower east side of Manhattan, or Thomas Merton, walking the hills of Kentucky and praying the daily cycle of prayers at Gethsemani Abbey — could likey have ever imagined being lifted up in the U. S. Congress.
When Pope Francis did speak about particular issues at the congressional podium, he spoke powerfully, in ways that transverse and transcend American political lines. He spoke in favor of abolishing the death penalty but also of protecting human life “at every stage of development.” He condemned the international arms trade as motivated “simply [by] money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” He spoke eloquently about the value of dialogue between hostile nations as an alternative to armed conflict. And throughout his remarks he lifted up the need to protect and provide justice for the poor, the immigrant, and the very planet.
After the speech to Congress, Pope Francis greeted the massive crowd waiting outside from the balcony of the Capitol building, using his native Spanish. “Buenos Días!,” he said to the diverse and beaming crowd.
He gave a blessing to the children praying, “Father of all, bless these. Bless each of them. Bless the families. Bless them all.”
He then asked for the prayers of all Americans, and the good wishes of non-believers, saying, “I ask you all please to pray for me. And if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you to please send good wishes my way.”
Yet another gesture that makes so many Americans — Catholic, non-Catholic, and non-religious alike — so deeply attracted to this pope.
In the past two days, I have heard the messages of the gospel that Sojourners has spread over four decades presented at the nation’s primary venues of power and lifted up as the country’s leading national media story. Even some of our most beloved gospel heroes were raised before the nation as the Americans the nation needs most to be our examples.
Stunned is the feeling I still have, which is taking my breath away. Pope Francis has indeed changed the national conversation in America this week, pointing to those who also changed the conversation, and then calling us all to continue to do the same. How long this will last is not the deepest question. Rather, it’s whether Pope Francis’ words will fall on fertile or rocky soil as the gospel parable asks, and who will decide in their own lives and in nation-changing movements to now keep this conversation changing.
In a clear message and mandate to Congress, Pope Francis said,
“Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology, to devise intelligent ways of developing and limiting our power, and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”
This is his clear message and mandate to all of us. We pray for the courage and perseverance to see that mission through. A stunning “Amen.”