Until last Thursday night, when I joined over 100 citizens — some Catholic, some not — in the public library’s Veterans Room, eager to view a replay of Pope Francis’ speech to Congress, I had never heard him speak.
Since the event was co-sponsored by three local eco-groups — Green Community Connections, Interfaith Green Network, and the Citizens Climate Lobby — plus 17 “supporting organizations,” there was an expectation that Francis would focus on climate change, but those who had listened to the broadcast live that morning already knew climate was not the central message in this speech (he saved that for the United Nations).
I hoped he would hold Congress’ feet to the fire, especially the Republicans, who, if not responsible for all of our problems, are mostly responsible for the fact that our many problems, including climate change, are not being adequately addressed.
The Republicans must have feared likewise since they scheduled the pontiff’s visit for 9 a.m. on a week day, guaranteeing that most people would not be around to watch.
Watching big speeches communally is something I enjoy, and I think the pope would have approved of our gathering. His halting, poorly pronounced English (“work” sounded like “walk”) took some getting used to, and his game effort to deliver it in the vernacular slowed him down considerably, but I found the speech nonetheless remarkable.
Though it was not your typical “political” speech — refreshing, especially in that setting — Francis did not shy away from the critical challenges facing us: polarization, extremism, immigration (and Native American displacement), the world’s refugee crisis, economic inequality, violence in the name of religion, and upholding the dignity of all workers, especially the poor. It was political if by that tainted term you mean “fearless leadership.”
Criticism was implicit but rarely explicit. He spoke of “respecting life at every stage of development,” then called for a worldwide abolition of … the death penalty, cutting short a squeal of celebration from someone in the audience who thought he was about to call for something altogether different.
All of this was important to hear, but it wasn’t what made the speech remarkable.
Instead of scolding our worst selves, he praised the best in us, personified by four examples: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
I’m willing to bet that less than 50 percent of Congress knew who Day and Merton were before this speech. But I’ll bet they were Googled plenty this past week. True, Francis stacked his small sample with two Catholics, but I would defy anyone to come up with a better foursome to represent the breadth of our national character.
Which led me to wonder if Pope Francis doesn’t know us better than we know ourselves.
That would be remarkable.
At the very least, I found it flattering and affirming that he had done his homework, that he understands us — our strengths as well as our weaknesses, because we are surely the embodiment of both. Not being a politician, but as a man of mercy, he did not emphasize one over the other. In fact, they seem inextricable.
In his first sentence, Francis said he was glad to be in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” which drew a standing O from the audience. He did not frame it in the form of a question, as does our own national anthem (“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”), a question that, unfortunately, most Americans do not take enough time to consider and answer as the anthem implies we should.
The pope’s answer to that question, on the other hand, was not quite what everyone expected. The land of the free and home of the brave produced not only Abraham Lincoln (who would make most lists) and Martin Luther King (who would make many), but also the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and a Trappist monk who wrote prolifically from his hermitage in Kentucky.
Lincoln preserved the Union and ended slavery; King advanced civil rights and racial equality; Day promoted economic justice by ministering to the urban poor; and Merton promoted religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. All of them, the pope said, were dedicated to “the common good.”
Weakness is intrinsic to our greatness. These four represent the many Americans who are in touch with the better angels of their nature, as Lincoln said. They do so by confronting our weaknesses: intolerance, inequality, self-centered materialism, the things that often make us so un-American.
By holding up this foursome for our consideration, the pope was calling on Congress, and by extension all Americans, to be the country we are capable of being but have not been for the past 35 years.
Francis is calling us out. Usually we employ that term in the negative, i.e. calling someone out for coming up short. But Pope Francis was calling our best selves out. If we could produce four individuals of such character, then the rest of us are capable of more as well.
That is this pope’s dream for us and he asked us to dream it with him.
“In these remarks,” he concluded, “I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land that has inspired so many people to dream.”
May it ever be so.