Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Pope and the President

Unlike the official ceremonial state welcome this morning, the Pope's arrival at Andrews yesterday afternoon was simple - almost informal. The President brought his daughters and mother-in-law to meet the Pope - and the Vice President brought his two granddaughters - a fittingly familial welcome for a Pope whose primary purpose in visiting is to address the World Meeting of Families later this week. And the Pope's last public talk in Cuba was also a plea to value family. It is in the family, he said in Cuba, that "we learn fraternity, that we learn solidarity, that we learn not to be overbearing ... that we learn to receive, to appreciate life as a blessing and to realize that we need one another to move forward. ... that we experience forgiveness, that we are continually asked to forgive and to grow."

In contemporary post-monarchies like the United States, a state visit is one of the few occasions when what Walter Bagehot famously called the "dignified" dimension of politics is on display. And on display it was with the traditional, formal state ceremony of official welcome of the Pope by our Head of State.

President Obama is fond of making reference to his favorable experience of the Catholic Church while working as a community organizer in Chicago. Obviously, it really did have some impact. On occasions such as this (and earlier, for example, his 2009 Notre Dame speech), it enables him to speak easily and eloquently in ways which his more normal posture as spokesperson for america's post-modern, secularist, elite culture does not typically allow.

Thus, in his official address of welcome, the President praised the world-wide work of Catholic organizations that  "serve the poor, minister to prisoners, build schools and homes, and operate orphanages and hospitals." He praised the Pope personally for reminding "us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity. but by how well we hew to Scripture's call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity - because we are all made int he image of God."

In particular, he noted the Pope's contribution to "our new beginning with the Cuban people" and his message of "welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart." The President spoke strongly of the universal value of religious liberty and specifically mentioned how "at this very moment" Christians "are targeted and even killed because of their faith." Finally, he expressed support for the Pope's "call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations."

In his response, Pope Francis immediately - literally in his second sentence - mentioned his own background as a son of immigrants and how America "was largely built by such families." For someone who has never before been to the US, the Pope obviously appreciates a fundamental feature of American identity - despite the xenophobia which presently threatens that identity in certain circles. The Pope also spoke of the centrality of religious liberty - and related that concern to a commitment "to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination."

Unsurprisingly, the Pope pressed the urgency of responding to climate "a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation." Again,showing a sensitivity to American history and to his immediate audience, he quoted Martin Luther King's famous reference to having "defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."

It was exceptionally edifying  hear both Pope and President singing from the same hymnal, so to speak. It was a most promising beginning to this visit.  

And it reminded me of Servant of God's promise to Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, that "Catholic truth" would "act like oil on troubled waters ... to sustain our institutions and enable our young country to realize its great destiny."

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