It was labelled as a talk on Religious Liberty with Hispanic and Other Immigrants. At first it sounded to me as if perhaps there wasn't enough time for two separate events (one on religious liberty, another for Hispanics and other immigrants), and so they were just artificially combined. I even entertained the suspicion that this was deliberately designed a something for everyone sort of event - religious liberty for those on the political right, immigrants for those on the political left. If that was anyone's plan, it was well and cleverly done! For someone with no previous US experience, Pope Francis has really studied up on American history and political thought and so turned this event into another astounding success.
The audience were all largely Hispanics and other immigrants. The Pope addressed them directly and spoke in Spanish, both in his informal interaction beforehand and in his formal remarks. And he based his talk on the text adopted 239 years ago in the very building he was standing in front of. And he stood at the same that Abraham Lincoln had used at Gettysburg, "fourscore and seven" years later, when he used that Declaration's principles to re-interpret the constitution and invest the Civil War with a transcendent meaning.
The Pope began by referencing - and endorsing - the Declaration's premise that "all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights." He then went on to highlight the historical struggles required throughout our nation's history to embody those principles in practice. "We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans. This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed."
In just one sentence, he liked the great struggles of abolitionism, civil rights, the labor movement, and the struggles of acceptance and inclusion that every immigrant group has had to go through, and in the second sentence asserted the benefit this process of inclusion and expansion of the political community has been for society as a whole - a point apparently much in need of being regularly repeated.
Then he turned specifically to the topic of religious freedom as both a core dimension of human existence and a profound benefit to society. it was a short but rich explication of the fundamental essence of what religious freedom is and why society should value it.
The Pope avoided the temptation to focus on specific conflict situations, emphasizing instead the benefits of pluralism, religious tolerance, and inter-religious dialogue. And that brought him back to his largely Hispanic audience. he encouraged them to see themselves as part of this great national story, reminding us once again how the American story has always been a story about immigrants:
"Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood. You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within."
It's always nice to be affirmed, but especially in this contentious political climate it must mean a lot to be told that you bring something of value to this society. Of course, that has always been the case. But, instead of appreciating that, there is once again a growing tendency to see immigrants only as problems, rather than as the gifts they actually are.
Like the nation as a whole, the Church in the United States has also had to learn this lesson over and over - from 19th-century Italian immigrants struggling for a place in an Irish-run local Church to today's Latino immigrants who are increasingly re-energizing a Church that at times seems to be losing its vitality and the fullness of its missionary possibilities.