It would take an extreme form of callousness not to have been proud of being a Catholic the last two days and the pride should continue to swell in our hearts and minds for three more days as Pope Francis continues his missionary journey to the United States. He speaks a message of love, mercy, and forgiveness and challenges all of us, myself included, to love God more dearly and our neighbor more nearly as the famous refrain from Godspell recalls. I was moved to tears by his speech to the joint session of Congress. It was masterful in construction and amazing in delivery. It was courageous of Speaker Boehner to invite the Holy Father and courageous of the pope to respond in English.
At both the White House and today at the Capitol, the Holy Father chose to raise our eyes up and beyond the current divisive debates which mark our political landscape to embrace fundamental American concepts which in the past have served us so well: religious freedom and liberty, respect for all human life from conception to natural death, welcome once again the stranger, live the Golden Rule, protect mother earth, end the death penalty.
In speaking to the U.S. bishops, we were exhorted to put aside narcissism and petty differences so as to act even more boldly on proclaiming the ministry of mercy of Jesus to the world. Using that marvelous metaphor of the Easter/Pentecost fire and applying it to a Church gathered around the family fireplace, he told we bishops that it is high time to stop being so exclusionist and more welcoming of the new family reality by letting each member stand around the fire with us regardless of their starting point.
Lifting up four Americans, two of them not Catholic (Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King) and two of them not so well known Catholics (Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton) he invited all in our country to continue to dream of a just society, an equal society, a kind and compassionate society, and a society bent on peace and the end to warfare, weaponry, etc. You may not know but certainly the Holy Father knew that as a young woman, Dorothy Day had a procured abortion but the mercy of God brought her back to stand around the fire and enlarge it with an outreach to the homeless and desperate of society.
The spin doctors of the media were at work to a certain degree, but a lot of what they were thinking (and perhaps some even hoping for), namely contentiousness between the Holy Father and the President and the Holy Father and a bitterly divided Congress just did not materialize. Gently but firmly Pope Francis spoke the language of Church teaching without offending most. I would be grateful if we bishops would be capable of doing the same.
There is Friday’s speech to the family of nations yet to be delivered and several major talks to be given at the World Meeting on the Family but it would be hard to imagine a conclusion to this missionary journey that will be as thought-provoking as these last two days in the nation’s capitol.
By the way, our seminarians were present in Washington today. I wanted them to experience the man whose name some of them will soon be using as they offer the Eucharistic sacrifice. Francis is the pope of the people and clearly even in secular leaning America, the people love this pope. I love this pope – more than any other in my lifetime and I shall spend my remaining months doing what I can to bring more people to stand around the family fire.