Monday, November 16, 2015

Our Shepherd Among Us: Reminiscences and Reflections (Part Two)

by Justin Soutar

The Prayer of the Church

After leaving the White House, Pope Francis headed to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington, a beautiful and historic church whose unusual Romanesque architecture evokes an earlier era of Christianity. This was the parish of America’s only Catholic president to date, John F. Kennedy, during his administration (1961—1963); his remains are buried beneath a circular marble slab in front of the cathedral’s main altar. Here the Holy Father joined Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and several hundred bishops from around the United States for midday prayer. Francis then delivered an hour-long address in Italian in which he shared with the bishops his own experiences as a pastor, focused on the basic qualities needed in a shepherd, and praised their defense of the unborn and their assistance to immigrants and refugees. After greeting a few of the bishops personally, the pope had Cardinal Wuerl tell them in English that he was sorry he couldn’t greet each of them individually. He tapped his watch and looked at them with an expression of wide-eyed regret. They understood and applauded.

Later that sunny Wednesday afternoon, Pope Francis proceeded to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and officiated at the canonization Mass of Father Junipero Serra, the famous eighteenth-century Franciscan priest who founded many of the California missions and who was beatified by Pope John Paul II. The Mass took place outside the basilica to accommodate the large and remarkably diverse crowd of bishops, priests and thousands of lay faithful from across the nation who took part in this historic ceremony--the first canonization ever performed on US soil. In his homily, Francis urged his listeners to guard against the apathy that often creeps into their hearts through the monotony of daily routines by going outside of themselves to proclaim the joy of the Gospel to others, following the missionary example of Father Serra. Early that evening, before retiring to his quarters for the night, the Holy Father paid a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor at their home in northeastern Washington; the religious congregation's ongoing legal fight against the HHS mandate has been making national headlines for several years.

Francis Makes History

On Thursday morning, September 24, Pope Francis headed to the US Capitol for another historic event: the first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress. Respectfully welcomed and escorted into the packed semicircular House chamber, the 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff took the podium and slowly delivered his lengthy, masterfully written prepared text in his heavily accented English. As I joined millions of viewers across our country and around the world watching the unprecedented event live on EWTN, I was pleasantly surprised at how remarkably well Francis’ address was received by these members of Congress. He was interrupted over and over again by vigorous applause, receiving at least a dozen standing ovations from the entire assembly. I think this impressive reception was due not only to the respect which most of these senators and representatives already had for Pope Francis, but also to the power of the religious and moral truths which he was proclaiming authentically and with conviction. As human beings fashioned in God’s image, we are made for truth, so when we hear it faithfully proclaimed, it resonates deep within us; this holds true even for corrupt politicians who routinely ignore and betray such truths in the daily business of government. The thread of Francis’ speech was brilliantly woven around four great Americans whose anniversaries are being celebrated this year: Abraham Lincoln, “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom’”; Martin Luther King, Jr., who marched as part of a campaign “to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans”; Dorothy Day, “who founded the Catholic Worker Movement” and whose “passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel”; and Thomas Merton, “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.”

Francis began his address by reminding the assembled lawmakers of the fundamental truth—-often obscured these days by corruption and partisan rhetoric—-that the real business of politics is the pursuit of the common good. Next, turning to the grim situation of a contemporary world marked by hatred and violent conflict, the Holy Father urged vigilance in combating the dangers of religious and ideological fundamentalism. He also warned against the temptation of “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners,” a temptation to which certain Americans often succumb in the realm of foreign policy. Francis added some welcome words of wisdom: “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” The pope encouraged a different response to evil, “one of hope and healing, of peace and justice…We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”

Turning to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and the ongoing phenomenon of mass migration across our nation’s southern borders, Pope Francis began to quote the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12 but was interrupted by a full standing ovation from the overwhelmingly Christian assembly. “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” said the Holy Father. “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.” Indeed, the pope was right: this core teaching of Christ should be the main reference point guiding our nation’s approach to these complicated and controversial issues. Of course, allowing this teaching to guide our immigration policy doesn’t mean we should leave our borders entirely unsecured or grant unconditional amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants who are desperate to feed their families, but it does mean we should treat these people with basic respect for their humanity and concern for their welfare while working to reform our bureaucratic immigration system and address the root causes of mass migration to the US. While on the topic of the Golden Rule, Francis did not fail to remind the legislators of their responsibility “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” a clear reference to the rights of the unborn that drew vigorous applause from this largely pro-life Congress.

Seizing the Moment

After briefly discussing the need to address poverty, hunger, and “environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” Pope Francis tacitly lauded the recently restored diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba—a rapprochement in which he himself played a critical role behind the scenes. "When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all,” he said. The Holy Father pointed out that such a reconciliation between formerly estranged peoples “requires courage and daring,” which he distinguished from “irresponsibility.” In this context, Francis defined a good political leader as “one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” I find it telling that the pope used the word “pragmatism” in this sentence instead of the word “idealism” that one might have expected him to use. Clearly, he was warning us against the dangerous tendency to view reconciliation between enemy nations simply as an idealistic dream that is not practical or attainable in the real world. The pope realizes that such a defeatist mentality would discourage us from sowing and patiently nurturing the seeds of dialogue that can, with time, ultimately yield the abundant harvest of reconciliation. Francis was pointing out that tearing down a wall of division between two peoples should rather be viewed as something of practical urgency, something that should be done as soon as circumstances permit, a concrete response to a profound human need for social communion, something with positive real-life consequences for millions of people on both sides. The pontiff then urged Congress to stop the global arms trade and work to end the many armed conflicts around the world—again, not as idealistic dreams, but as practical goals to be accomplished as soon as possible for the good of the entire human family.

Francis concluded his historic address to the Senate and House of Representatives by turning to the subject of the family. He reminded his audience how essential the family has been to the building of this country and expressed his concern about contemporary threats to marriage and family life. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” said the Holy Father, apparently referring to attempts to redefine marriage based on gender ideology and to equate deviant homosexual relationships with traditional marriage. Focusing mainly on the challenges young Americans currently face, the pope lamented that many “seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.” “At the risk of oversimplifying,” he continued, “we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.” The pontiff’s diagnosis is accurate: we live in a highly secularized materialistic culture that glorifies individualism and eschews long-term commitment, while an unfavorable economic climate makes it difficult for many young Americans to start a family and prosper. Francis declared that we need to face these problems “together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions.”

After leaving the House chamber and briefly greeting an enthusiastic crowd of some 50,000 people gathered on the Mall in front of the Capitol, Pope Francis paid a midday visit to the homeless and poor of Washington in Saint Patrick’s Church. Before leaving the city later that afternoon, His Holiness made another unscheduled visit that eloquently underscored his heartfelt concern for religious liberty. He stopped by the Vatican embassy to meet with Kim Davis, the Christian county clerk from Kentucky whose refusal to issue marriage licenses for homosexual couples based on her religious convictions led to her arrest and imprisonment earlier in the month. “Thank you for your courage,” the pope told her in English. “Stay strong.” President Obama had made his point at the White House the day before; now Pope Francis had made his.

New York and Philadelphia

Partly cloudy and windy conditions greeted the Holy Father as he arrived at JFK Airport in New York City around 5 PM. Under heavy security, he was transferred from the American Airlines jet to a police helicopter, from helicopter to the Fiat, and then from Fiat to popemobile. Surrounded by dozens of police vehicles, Francis made his way up an empty stretch of Fifth Avenue to pray Vespers in the historic and magnificently renovated Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. On Friday morning, September 25, he became the fourth pope to visit the United Nations headquarters and address the General Assembly. In his long and well-written speech, Francis commended the organization for its important work for world peace during the last seventy years, condemned the gender ideology that blurs the differences between men and women, and urged respect for the human rights and dignity of all peoples and families. Afterward, the Holy Father participated in an inter-religious memorial service at the former World Trade Center site, where he reiterated his predecessors’ forceful condemnation of violence against innocent human beings and prayed fervently for peace.

That evening, Francis presided over a spectacular Mass at the iconic Madison Square Garden arena, which was filled to capacity. Near the end of the liturgy, when Cardinal Dolan thanked him for coming to visit, the throng of at least 20,000 worshipers gave the pope a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. It was a moving and unforgettable moment to witness live on television. America’s Catholics had truly embraced Pope Francis. He was their loving Shepherd who had gone beyond his comfort zone to reach out to them, and they, his loyal flock, were now responding with love and gratitude. “Thank you, and please, don’t forget to pray for me,” the Holy Father added with a smile as the liturgy concluded.

(To be continued)

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