As he steps off the plane for his first visit ever to the United States, Pope Francis will behold a nation enthralled with his message of mercy and yet split down the middle with its own oft-loud tendency to pass judgment and derision on people of whom we disapprove. The early phases of our presidential campaign have been so full of mud-slinging it’s been hard to see beyond the venom; the scandalously hateful discourse of some of the candidates seems to channel our society’s tendency to wallow in ugly contempt for each other. A man in a town hall stands up and rants about some people and the candidate does not stop the diatribe nor the hatred. Another candidate proclaims that an entire group of people on the basis of certain characteristics should be excluded from any consideration for the White House — failing to note the irony in the fact that the candidate, himself, would have been excluded for consideration on the basis of his characteristics just a short time ago.
No where in the recent political discourse have we heard much talk of concern for the poor, a reduction in our pursuit of material goods and gains, a moral imperative to care for each other through care for the environment, a proclamation of justice not as what we amass for ourselves but rather as what we owe to each other for the life that God has given to us. Young people watching the show might think that it’s perfectly fine for people who aspire to high leadership to brag about how much money they have made, to call each other names, to “trash talk” people instead of engaging in legitimate debate about ideas and policies. The current political zeitgeist offers few good role models for children learning how to be citizen leaders.
Into this unhealthy fog of rank unhappiness now comes Pope Francis, a down-to-earth leader, someone who seems to smile quite naturally, a man who did not seek high office nor did he earn the office through trashing others. Elected by his brother cardinals two years ago, Francis wears his rank and authority with ease and confidence, with good humor and humility. As a leader, he exudes all of the personal qualities that we Americans can only dream about in our leaders. He is unafraid to be unscripted and honest; he has defied his “handlers” by wading into crowds both real and theoretical, challenging convention, daring to ask, “Who am I to judge?” and suggesting that Mercy is more important than condemnation.
Americans seem to love Pope Francis althought it’s probably a good bet that most know very little about him, and probably even fewer have read most of his teachings. I wrote a little bit about Pope Francis after his interview with America magazine in 2013, see my blog “Pope Francis: Humility, Mercy and Common Sense.” I also used excerpts from his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si in a series of Adirondack Chronicles I wrote this summer. It’s important to read his recent letter on Mercy, summarized well in this article in the National Catholic reporter.
As we move through this week, we’ll be learning more about Pope Francis and he will also be learning more about American and Americans. Let’s hope and pray that what he learns about us is the best of us — our large charity when we really are up to the call, our “habits of the heart” serving others, our passion for peace and justice for all as essential to the freedom and individual liberties we enjoy. And as he learns about us, let us be open to hearing his voice and call to do more, to give more of ourselves to those in need, to set aside our preoccupation with material gain in favor of solidarity with the poor — and perhaps, most important, to learn the virtue and habits of mercy as the essential antidote to the culture of hate.
Good list of readings on Pope Francis in the Washington Post: “Six Things You Should Read to Understand Pope Francis,” September 21.
An interesting read on the Church in the United States today: New York Times, “Pope Francis to Find a Church in Upheaval,” September 22, 2015, p. 1
What do you think about Pope Francis? As he visits Washington this week and comes to Trinity’s neighborhood for the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine, please share your comments and thoughts on the Pope, and send photos! Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or share in the comments section below.
And please join me in extending a joyous WELCOME to Pope Francis!