Thank You, Pope Francis
House Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation just one day after what is obviously a great triumph and source of pride for him: welcoming the Pope to the U.S. Capitol. Most commentators on Boehner's resignation have focused on his difficulties in managing the in-fighting among House Republicans, some of whom prefer disruption and self-aggrandizement to effective governance of the republic. But is there possibly another reason for the Speaker's departure?
Could his abundant tears during the Pope's address to Congress signal not merely intense emotions but acceptance on his part of the Pope's message, on issues such as poverty and immigration? Was the Pope's address an occasion for seeing such matters in a new way, beyond the narrow confines of partisan sound bites? We likely will never know, but if it were an experience of new insights, even of a kind of conversion, Boehner would not be altogether, unlike other Americans, moved by the authenticity, love, and tireless zeal of Pope Francis.
In calling the sons and daughters of poor and scorned immigrants to remember their roots, and asking people to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, Pope Francis exposed the cheap and tawdry nature of some of the most hateful and hypocritical polemics in U.S. politics and culture. Francis spoke as an authoritative moral teacher, one of his official roles as bishop of Rome, and also as a loving father, a humble man who recognizes his own weaknesses, a priest and pastor eager to bind up and heal wounds and to call his audiences to embrace their better selves and reach out in generosity to those in need.
Not only before Congress, but throughout his days in three U.S. cities, Pope Francis taught by word and by example. The modest Fiat, dwarfed by oversized SUVs, was no game. He appeared more at home with immigrant children in Harlem than he did with the most powerful people in the world.
In calling for an urgent response to human-made climate change, Pope Francis called for responsible use of resources that belong to all people, not solely the rich. Pope Francis taught with a prophetic voice when he insisted that we treat the earth as our common home, not as a resource for the fun and profit of but a few. When he stopped to embrace the physically weak, the very young, the very old, and the imprisoned, he affirmed the dignity of every human life. Echoing the teaching of Saint John Paul II, Pope Francis issued an eloquent appeal for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. and everywhere. Indeed, this, not abortion, was the pro-life issue he highlighted most prominently.
The language of Catholic Social Teaching, developed by popes and theologians since the late nineteenth century, Pope Francis repeated or alluded to again and again: the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, collaboration, human rights and human dignity. For him, these are not empty slogans or but part of an academic exercise. They are at the heart of what the Catholic Church teaches about God and about human beings as made in God's image. They are not merely personal opinions, something Catholics may take or leave as they please, perhaps if their comfortable, privileged lifestyles should happen to be brought into question.
At the same time, Pope Francis addressed an audience far larger than a Catholic one. Not only in an interreligious prayer service, but throughout his days in the US, Francis drew amazingly diverse crowds, of believers and of others, and he reached out to them and touched them, with respect, warmth, and love.
In various ways Pope Francis affirmed the exemplary lives of women. He chose Dorothy Day as one of four Americans that reveal some of the best tendencies of U.S. citizens. She pushed the limits of freedom of speech as she defended the poor and sought to promote peace through an end to the arms race and war.
The current Cardinal Archbishop of New York, enormously pleased to host Pope Francis, has for some time encouraged Day's cause for beatification and eventual canonization as a saint; historians know, however, that bishops were not always so kind to her and to her Catholic Worker movement. And Pope Francis, in praising religious American women as courageous fighters in the proclamation of the gospel, asked them, "What would the Church be without you?" Thus did Pope Francis make it clear that the days of Vatican suspicion and investigation of religious women are over.
Pope Francis himself is a member of a religious order, indeed the first bishop of Rome to be so since the death of Gregory XVI in 1846. A Jesuit, Pope Francis often uses Jesuit language and echoes Jesuit ideals such as discernment, various degrees of humility, freedom from greed and arrogance, a clergy free from careerism, a detachment from material things, a faith that does justice, contemplation in action, gratitude, availability for mission and for going to the far corners of the earth in order to help those most in need.
A Jesuit myself, I do not even have words to express how moved I am by Pope Francis. Yes, I am very proud of him and proud to be a Jesuit, though I know that he would caution that this ought to be a humble pride (assuming that such a thing may be more than an oxymoron).
A native of Burlington, Vermont, I am also proud of Bernie Sanders, a Burlington resident for nearly 50 years, and not so unlike Pope Francis in his zeal for the poor, the worker, the marginalized. As a young man, Sanders was present in Washington when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, a dream to which Pope Francis referred in his address to Congress.
With Pope Francis, may we all continue to dream, and to make a reality the dream of equal rights and dignity for all people, including immigrants, the poor, the outsiders, the marginalized, the forgotten of every kind and of every race and nation.