Pope Francis walked boldly this week into the cauldron that is Washington, D.C., and he gave Beltway inhabitants and the rest of America plenty to think about.
He was the first pope to address a joint session of Congress and did so as the members of that fractured body are contemplating a government shutdown.
The beauty of Francis — although a frustration to those who are used to more rigid Catholic leaders — is his refusal to fit into any political box. His remarks to Congress, and in other appearances around the capital, have provided some sustenance for just about everyone.
Here are three of his messages we hope will have resonance:
▪ Support for refugees and immigrants.
Francis noted that the world is confronting the largest number of refugees since World War II. And lest anyone think that responsibility stops at the doors of European nations, he said:
“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
That’s something to remember the next time panic erupts over immigrants, especially unaccompanied minors “streaming” over our southern border to escape gang violence and grinding poverty in places like El Salvador and Honduras.
▪ Focus on climate change.
Quoting frequently from his recent encyclical on the moral call to reduce pollution and promote global sustainability, the pope talked on several stops about environmental issues.
In his meeting with President Barack Obama, Francis discussed the damage that industrialization has wrought on vast parts of the world and their inhabitants:
“When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history,” he said. “To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
The pope’s appeals may not change the hearts and minds of climate change deniers or those who understand the problem and choose not to respond. But his attention provides powerful moral support for those who recognize the need for a dramatic response.
▪ The politics of good.
When speaking to Congress, Francis left out a strong message in his prepared speech.
“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” the advance script declared.
But the pope skipped over that line — inadvertently, a spokesman said later — and went on:
“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”
One can hardly look at the vast sums of money pouring into politics today and not conclude that the interests of the wealthy are trumping service to the human person. Congress really needed to hear that missing line.