Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope Addresses Congress

I am no fan of sports metaphors and generally prefer to avoid them, but I will use one today to say that Pope Francis hit it out of the park when he addressed Congress this morning! It was a scene that would have been utterly unimaginable for most of our country's history, including much of our recent history! And yet when this great day came, Pope Francis brilliantly clothed his remarks in the best of American history, tradition, and values - as if to say, it's not impossible to address these pressing problems, you really can do this, America, if you put aside your divisions and try!

Anticipating his address, there was some anxiety that the Pope would come across as a scold - and indeed there is much to scold our political leaders (and us citizens) about, on both sides of the aisle. But having accepted the Speaker's gracious invitation, Pope Francis was not one to respond ungraciously. He was polite, as befits a guest. Instead of scolding, he challenged, but gently by way of an invitation - an invitation to dialogue, to conversation focused on the common good, formulated in terms that could appeal to the very best about America and its history, tradition, and values. He may be a stranger to the US, but he obviously did his homework and succeeded in making a profound connection with America's soul.

After breaking the ice, so to speak, by quoting our national anthem (something that got even the usually very reserved Supreme Court Justices to applaud), he offered his audience  the briefest of introductions to Catholic political theory. ("You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.")  Then, after making another connection with Congress by invoking the figure of Moses, whose image adorns the House chamber, he invited us all into a dialogue through our national "historical memory," invoking four outstanding Americans - Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. Wherever he got that idea, it was brilliant!

Invoking those great Americans - Lincoln and King, who are certainly familiar to all, and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, members of this country's Catholic sub-culture who offered alternative models "of seeing and interpreting reality." Through the resonance of their stories, Pope Francis was able to address several specific concerns that are close to his heart - among them, overcoming polarization through dialogue and commitment to the common good, immigrants, the poor, the environment, the defense of human life, opposition to capital punishment and the arms trade, and the threats facing the family. Undoubtedly there was and will continue to be disagreement among his audience, some favoring some of his concerns but not others. But, after this address, no one on any side of any of these issues should be able to doubt or relativize the Pope's priorities.

"A nation can be considered great," he concluded, "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."

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