(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis addressed a meeting of both houses of the US Congress on Thursday morning – another in a string of personal and historical firsts achieved during this visit to the United States – and delivered an address that was historic both for the mere fact of its delivery, and for its content.
Vatican Radio’s Christopher Altieri report:
To say the speech was “hard-hitting” would perhaps be misleading. At least, it would risk suggesting a trenchant tone to the Holy Father’s remarks, when the truth is that the speech neither reads nor was delivered with anything like truculence, or stridence, or even pugnacity. Nevertheless, the speech was most certainly forceful. Indeed, the address was in its essence a powerful word of encouragement – just as Pope Francis himself said it would be.
The Pope’s discourse was encouraging: it was also challenging.
Focused on four iconic figures from US history: the 16th and arguably greatest US President, Abraham Lincoln; the radical social activist and Servant of God, Dorothy Day; the Protestant preacher and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.; Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, author and spiritual adventurer; the speech essentially reminded legislators of their duty to respond to the basic political question, “How ought we order our lives together?” in light of a common commitment to pursue the good. “A good political leader, Pope Francis said, “is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.“
It was also an encouragement to the whole people of the United States. “Here, together with their representatives,” said Pope Francis, “I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families.” Speaking of the great “middle class” of US society, Pope Francis said, “These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.”
Pope Francis did not shy away from difficult issues, and he did not mince words: he reminded legislators of their duty in justice to assure that human life is respected in its dignity at every stage of its development, and he frankly expressed his concern for the family, especially for the marriage relationship on which the family and through it all society is based. “I cannot hide my concern for the family,” he said, “which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
Here are two brief takeaways from what can only be described as an extraordinarily thoughtful and well-constructed set of remarks, the full parsing and fulsome analysis of which will take some time: first, Pope Francis is a quick study (he had said not more than a few months before that he needed to familiarize himself with the social, cultural, and political history and landscape of the United States – and it is fair to surmise from the words the Holy Father spoke to Congress that he has taken his study seriously and done well in such a short time); second, he believes in the ability of people to talk with each other and – despite great strains and difficulties – achieve great things together (indeed, his invocation of Lincoln seemed to this reporter and reader of America to have a subtext that essentially reminded the legislators and their constituents – the American people – at once of what great things a people can do when they are truly united and dedicated to the good, and of how bad things can get when a nation conceived in and dedicated to such a pursuit loses its way and abandons faith in its constitutive conversation).
In Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis found examples of American action and American contemplation – and reminded his audience within the chamber and without, of the real and enduring contribution of Catholics to American life.
He also recalled his audience to the urgency of the need for recovery and repair of the national discourse in light of the “better angels” of the American character, and with an eye to the future. “A nation can be considered great,” he said, “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.”
In a word: Pope Francis continued to give sign of his profoundly Catholic forma mentis – in both the capital and lower case sense – his willingness to learn and listen, and his belief in the ability of human beings to achieve great things in service of the true and genuine good, if they are receptive to grace and willing to hear each other respectfully, with a healthy regard at once for the frailty and brokenness of our nature and the divine glory in the image and likeness of which that nature has been cast.
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