Reflections on the Pope in DC, Part Three: The Speech to Congress

Pope-in-Congress-2-512x300The Pope and the Congress of the United States.  Who could ever have imagined such a scene?  After all, it hasn’t been all that many years since it was considered impossible for a Catholic to ever be elected President!  And here was “the Pope of the Holy See” (as he was announced to the members of Congress) standing there between two other Catholics, lawmakers from opposing political parties, about to deliver an historic address.

Much has already been reported about the speech.  The steady drumbeat of “the common good” punctuated the Pope’s remarks as he schooled, supported, and challenged the legislators in their mission.  He also took the opportunity to address all U.S. citizens through our shared “historical memory”, invoking Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  Truly a stunning list and, undoubtedly, one which is simultaneously affirming and challenging.  American politicians of each party are fond of aligning themselves with Abraham Lincoln, and most would also include Dr. King today.  But certainly most of our lawmakers would perhaps not even recognize the names of Day and Merton and, if they did, would find them uncomfortable!  The Pope detailed his reasons for recalling each of them, summarizing:

Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

Let’s consider some highlights from the pope’s own words:

Abraham_Lincoln_seated,_Feb_9,_1864Abraham Lincoln:

This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”. Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.

In addressing the current polarities found in public life and discourse throughout today’s world, the Pope challenged the popular tendency to sharpen those polarities:

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

Such a challenging assertion!  Do we, indeed, as a people, reject this temptation to polarity, both in our public political discourse and even in our religious discourse?

We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. . . .

Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.

dr-martin-luther-king-1Martin Luther King, Jr.:

In recalling the great “dream” of Dr. King for equality of all persons, the Pope expanded upon it:

We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. . . .

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. 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, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must 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. To respond in a way which is 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” (Mt 7:12).

The Pope’s invocation of the Golden Rule resulted in a standing ovation from all present in the chamber, and it was here that he pointedly addressed issues of life itself, including the death penalty:

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule alsoreminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

Dorothy-DayDorothy Day:

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded theCatholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

While acknowledging that much progress has been made, the Pope reminded us all that “much more still needs to be done” to assist those who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.”

Included in this renewed sense of social justice for all was a strong call for economic and ecological reform, again and always for the common good.  There is also a steady stream of quotations from his encyclical Laudato Si’ punctuating this entire section:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

This powerful section linking and expanding what we include in the category of “social justice” was particularly powerful and moving, challenging all to develop that “culture of care” for all of God’s creation!

merton-photoThomas Merton:

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. . . .  Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

In this spirit of dialogue, the Pope explains to the lawmakers both HIS role as pontifex: a bridge-builder, and THEIR role as political leaders:

It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.

As we saw above:

Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

The Pope calls us all to spiritual greatness, recognizing our God-given identity and responsibility:

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.

Challenging.  Supportive.  Hortative.  Inspirational.  Imaginative.  Pope Francis struck every note, creating a chord of compassion, commitment to the common good, and collaborative leadership.  It will be wonderful if not only our political leadership will take his words to heart but indeed all of us!

Reflections on the Pope in DC, Part Two: The Cross and the Hill

1000Just when you think things couldn’t get more exciting, Pope Francis takes things to a new level.  That’s the way it felt in Washington the day after the Canonization Mass at The Catholic University of America.  The pope, of course, was about to do something no other pope had ever done before: address a joint meeting of the United States Congress.  But before turning to that address in the next post, I want to offer some personal observations surrounding the event.

220px-Farr-Portrait-2013On a personal level, the pilgrims from the Diocese of Monterey were blessed by the great generosity of Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA, 20th District) and his staff.  Mr. Farr not only obtained tickets for a diocesan-sponsored pilgrimage group; he invited Monterey Bishop Richard Garcia to attend the pope’s speech in the Gallery of the Chamber itself.  Retired Monterey Bishop Sylvester Ryan was seated in a caucus chamber, and still another room was prepared for additional visitors from his District, and still others were outside watching on Jumbotrons.  So, pilgrims from the Diocese were found everywhere that historic day.  Once more, a very public “thank you” to Congressman Farr and his entire staff!

IMG_0734 (2)My own responsibilities that day included a very special mission.  Some weeks ago at the Vatican, the Pope was shown the actual cross worn by Father Junipero Serra over his Franciscan habit.  He asked that it be made available during the Mass of Canonization, so Bishop Garcia personally carried the relic to Washington, where he provided it to the papal Master of Ceremonies.  The day after the Mass — which was the same day as the Pope’s speech to Congress — was the first time we could retrieve the relic for its return to the Carmel Mission where St. Junipero is buried.  Since the Bishop had to head into the Gallery, he asked me to pick up the cross.  So, after driving the bishops to Capitol Hill on Thursday morning, I returned to the Basilica and met with Msgr. Rossi, the Rector.  The cross had been safely preserved in the sacristy where the Pope had vested for the Canonization Mass, and I carefully returned it to its box for the Bishop to transport it back to California.  Mission accomplished, I returned to Capitol Hill and was able to see the last half of the Pope’s remarkable address [see the next post].

IMG_1814Following the papal address, Congressman Farr and his staff laid on a light lunch for all of us, and then he gave a few of us a brief tour of the House, including the part of Statuary Hall containing the statue of St. Junipero Serra; the only other State represented by a saint is Hawai’i, with its statue of St. Damien of Molokai.  In an interesting bit of trivia, the masking tape was still on the floor in front of the statue of St. Junipero showing where the Pope and the Congressional leadership had stood only moments before.  The Congressman, as indeed all of us, had been moved by the positive tone of the pope’s address.  He remarked that it was exactly the kind of message our lawmakers needed to challenge them out of the overarching negativity and polarization that seems to have frozen them into indecision and inaction.

It was on this wonderful, positive, and very personal note that we left the Hill.  Some of us departed Washington shortly thereafter, some of us returning to California, while some of the bishops headed off to New York and/or Philadelphia.

Let’s now take a closer look at the remarkable address Pope Francis delivered to the Congress.