As Pope Francis’s visit to the United States wraps up, I have begun to reflect on the excitement of the past week and the message he has given us. I have followed the Pope’s appearances in Washington DC, New York, and now Philadelphia, and I, along with the hundreds and thousands of people who have thronged to see him, am watching with bated breath his speeches in front of the movers and shakers in our cities.
For me, it is difficult to not get heated up when conversations turn political or ideological. It is so easy to slip into aggressive talk and to engage in polemic dialogue when I disagree with someone (especially other religious) on hot-button issues like immigration, same-sex marriage, or inter-faith relations. How could one not get fired up with self-righteous indignation when one is “only” fighting for justice and defending the oppressed? My certitude and my investments in my viewpoints make judgment and finger-pointing very easy.
And yet I didn’t see any of that with Pope Francis. His speeches this week transcended all of that. He didn’t engage in the usual bipartisan language that defines this country’s political landscape and he didn’t distinguish between the “us” and “thems”, which has become so common place in our post 9/11 world. With Pope Francis, it was always only “us”.
In his address to Congress, Pope Francis picked four heroic individuals to represent the greatness of our country and to reflect our shared calling to be brother and sister to one another: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. A Republican president, a Baptist minister, a Catholic woman pacifist and activist, and a Trappist monk with a penchant for Eastern religions. A motley crew of role models and saints for us to draw inspiration from.
“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… 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.” (Pope Francis, 9/24/2015)
Pope Francis didn’t engage in divisive language. He didn’t harp on the heated issues that get everyone’s heart pounding. Instead he dwelled on our commonalities, in the shared experiences, dreams, and aspirations that give definition to our dignity and our humanity. This message was brought to high relief at the inter-faith prayer service at Ground Zero in New York City this past Friday. Pope Francis shared a poignant moment of grace with his brothers and sisters of different faiths: Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and Christians of different traditions.
“Here, amid pain and grief, we also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of, those hidden reserves of strength from which we can draw. In the depths of pain and suffering, you also witnessed the heights of generosity and service. Hands reached out, lives were given. In a metropolis which might seem impersonal, faceless, lonely, you demonstrated the powerful solidarity born of mutual support, love and self-sacrifice. No one thought about race, nationality, neighborhoods, religion or politics. It was all about solidarity, meeting immediate needs, brotherhood. It was about being brothers and sisters. New York City firemen walked into the crumbling towers, with no concern for their own wellbeing. Many succumbed; their sacrifice enabled great numbers to be saved.
This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division.” (Pope Francis, 9/25/2015)
All week long, I have been inspired by these words and I have been inspired by Pope Francis. He is someone who is able to focus on the things that run through our common experiences, the issues that tie all of us as brothers and sisters under the same Creator: joy, love, justice, and even death. I don’t want the enthusiasm I felt during his visit to disappear or fade away like last week’s Instagram post. I don’t want to go back to the same routine of division, anger, and complacency.
Please pray that God grants me the courage and perseverance to live out this calling.
*photo taken from http://www.catholicsun.org/2015/09/25/pope-at-911-memorial-violence-is-never-impersonal-always-brings-tears/