For a humble, jovial man who smiles, tells jokes and takes selfies with children, it is incredible to see the passion and emotion Pope Francis provokes – even in our nation’s capital. Most of it is wonderful.
Thursday, he became the first pope ever to address a joint meeting of Congress – both a milestone and a challenge. Standing before men and women known mainly for their animosity toward one another, the pope raised a question: Who is being served by this government’s failure to work together?
His speech used the word “prayer” once; the word “dialogue” at least a dozen times.
Francis underscored the urgency to link arms on several life-and-death issues, from mass global migration to rapacious capitalism to climate change to arms control. Do unto others, he said, citing the beginning of Golden Rule. Most of our politicians would have finished that statement with “before they do it to you.” He urged our politicians to connect; to build relationships. We hope Washington still knows how.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s most conspicuous Catholics – Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas – were conspicuously absent. Perhaps they feared Francis would gently and charismatically call them out on their affection for the death penalty.
On the other hand, there was something touching about the way our elected leaders – including Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock – jammed into the House of Representatives and strained to hear the pope’s words through his accent; they applauded vigorously; some wiped away tears.
The Catholic church has its shortcomings – ask Catholic women – but this pope is finding ways to bridge emotional chasms, right old wrongs, embrace the previously neglected.
Yet, the Pope’s presence has not been universally applauded. Columnist George Will appears to take the Pope’s presence as a personal affront. Referencing 200 years of industrial dynamism, he defended unfettered capitalism and the ravenous consumption of fossil fuels. The angry atheist vented: “(Francis) stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies … Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
The accomplishments Will applauds are real, but they are far from the whole story. He might not have noticed, but the industrial age is in our rear-view mirror. We are entering a new age. Yes, we know the early Catholic Church fought the transition from agrarianism to industrialism, but Francis is pushing the Church to the forefront of a global re-imagining of what society is and can be; calling upon all to build relationships and affect change. We can only hope the confrontational dogma Will clings to is in eclipse.
Just as the Pope instructed our politicians to talk to each other, so must we all recognize our shared humanity and dependence on one another.
Not only do we honor Francis for inspiring us with new priorities, we pray for a society that strives for the highest ideals while stooping to help those on the lowest rungs. Our leaders should repent the political polarization that creates gridlock and reduces them to insignificance. It shouldn’t take a miracle for us to connect.