I wanted to write about what the Pope said during his visit to the United States. But I soon discovered that what the Pope did was just as significant as what the Pope said. We all know, for example, the Pope refused to move into the lavish papal apartments at the Vatican and has remained in a single room at the hotel with a bed, bathroom and a desk. We probably know that he was greeted at the airport by the President, Vice President, their families and other dignitaries and that he left the airport in the back seat of a Fiat. We know that after his address to the joint Houses of Congress, rather than having lunch with dignitaries, celebrities, diplomats and elected officials ~ he went to Catholic Charities and had lunch with poor families at their soup kitchen. We know that he refused to grant a private audience to anyone, but stopped numerous times to offer an embrace to children and to people in wheelchairs. None of the aforementioned is about what he said; it is all was about what he did.
We also know that the Pope has a 91% approval rating that is higher than any elected or appointed national official in the Americas or in Europe. How did he achieve this rock star status and the love of billions of Catholic and non-Catholic people? Surely, he must have avoided talking about the contentious issues of the day and mastered the art of sounding smart without actually saying anything of substance with which people could take issue. Surely he did not mix politics and religion. Or did he?
Well, the Pope called on the country to open its doors for refugees. He alluded to his opposition to abortion, reminding politicians of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” He called for the end of the death penalty, asked for action regarding climate change and hinted that a redistribution of wealth to “all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty” might be necessary. For many conservatives, the Pope is too liberal for their taste. One Republican congressman from Arizona boycotted Francis’ speech because of the Pope’s views on climate change. Some liberals loved much of what Francis had to say but skipped over his thoughts on abortion. The Pope spoke of the moral imperative of addressing climate change, income inequality, immigration reform, Syrian refugees, church doctrine, the relationship between science and religion, and he presided over the first canonization on American soil ~ that of a Latino man who established missions to native Americans.
It sure does not sound like the religious leader of a billion Catholics avoided politics for fear of losing members. Quite the opposite seems to be true. As the first Pope ever to address the joint houses of Congress, he used some familiar church language when he said, “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility… 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. 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 spoke of the need for Congress to keep a focus on The Golden Rule and also reflected on Moses, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. And the Pope spoke of how Moses lead us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. He said, “Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
The Pope then mentioned four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The Pope mentioned that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”. He continued, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. He spoke of ideological extremism, and the need to be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind; and of how a “delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion.” He spoke of Martin Luther King and the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans and how America continues to be, for many, a land of “dreams” which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. He spoke of dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people. He said, “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
He spoke of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and of how her social activism and passion for justice were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints. The fourth American he mentioned was the monk, Thomas Merton who remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a promoter of peace between all peoples and all religions.
Toward the end of his address, the Pope said, “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.”
The Pope spoke of the Golden Rule, Israel, immigration, unity, refugees, God, monks, prison, faith, the gospel, soup kitchens, charity, saints, religion, fundamentalism, mission, and being called to a purposeful existence. And for speaking and acting on these things and more he has achieved rock star status and will presided at an outdoor mass that attracted one million people.
Understanding the Pope is actually very, very simple. He is a Christian. Everything that comes out of his mouth; every word; every action is based on what the Pope believes Jesus wants for this world. The Pope has now come and gone. There will soon be nothing physical that remains except for a slight, low-emission vapor trail of a Fiat. But we, and our church, and his message shall remain. May Christ guide us to be the heart and hands of God’s will on earth.