Days before the United States faces the possibility of another government shutdown, and in the midst of presidential candidates firing verbal shots at one another Pope Francis stood before a joint session of the House and Senate and honored America, our history and the pivotal role our country plays in the world.
In his speech the pope spoke eloquently about the role of elected officials and the responsibly they share "to defend and preserve the dignity" of their fellow citizens. He noted that "a good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism." He paid heed to the many challenges Congress faces today and noted that such challenges "demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience."
Unfortunately the pontiff's words appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Members complained about issues he did or did not address. One member publicly announced that he did not attend because he had no interest in listening to the pope talk about climate change. The press wasn't much better and it was particularly disturbing to hear their complaints that the pope wasn't political enough as he didn't spend enough time on issue X or issue Y. That was not the purpose nor the intention of inviting Pope Francis to speak before the joint session of the US Congress.
Perhaps the pope's statement that when it comes to the difficult issues of the day, "We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions," simply could not be heard in the political polarization that dominates Congress today. Or as Petual Dvoruk of the Washington Post suggested in her column, it could have been due to "the oddness of the picture of the Pope on Capitol Hill where polarization and ugly rhetoric have become a twisted badge of honor."
Abraham Lincoln, one of four American's highlighted in the pope's speech, in his 1861 inaugural address said that "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." It is difficult, if not impossible, for the better angels of our nature to prevail in Congress or among the media pundits. So it seems clear that we, the public, must rise to the challenge and take on the difficult job of keeping Congress and the media in touch with our better angels.