Immediately following Pope Francis’s much-anticipated address to Congress, two headlines offered radically different accounts of what took place. “Pope Francis Fails Social Conservatives in Address to Congress,” read one. Meanwhile, another declared: “Pope Francis lectures America on gay marriage, abortion, immigration.”
So which was it? Perhaps upon reflection a year later, we can begin to see with greater clarity just what the pontiff was really up to during his historic visit to America.
Or wait. Shouldn’t we have known all along? If we listened to him carefully, he was rather clear from the outset about the purpose of this visit.
Speaking at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis stated, “I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit.” He continued:
“I encourage you, then, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we will face these challenges.”
But in confronting the oft-neuralgic issues of family and life, Pope Francis managed to reframe the Church’s traditional teachings through the lens of the American Dream. In doing so, he offered an invitation to skeptics not only to reconsider, but also to realize these very ideals represent what’s best about America.
While there’s no one settled definition of what is really meant by the idea of the “American Dream,” most folks will generally agree that it’s the belief—or the hope—that in America, anyone and everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper and thrive.
To illustrate this, Francis used his time at the lectern in Congress to elevate the example of four great Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton—to make this connection explicit.
In speaking of Lincoln, he praised this “guardian of liberty” who worked to remind us that “politics must truly be at the service of the human person.” In the same way Lincoln fought against the slavery and injustices of his era, Francis reminded us that there are modern forms of slavery and grave injustices that must be resisted if we really want to defend the ideal of liberty for all persons.
Martin Luther King, the great champion of civil and political rights for all Americans, reminds us that there is no person, regardless of race or creed, born or unborn, that does not deserve protection and care.
Summing up his legacy for today, Francis declared: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves… if we want life, let us give life.”
The legacy of Dorothy Day should remind us, according to Francis, to keep in mind those “who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.” And it is only through the support of strong families and strong societies that are interested in promoting the common good over personal interests, can we offer a way out.
Thomas Merton offers a legacy of “the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.” In a time in which people of faith are increasingly being driven out of the public square because of their beliefs, Merton reminds us that in America, tolerance is an essential component of the American project.
Instead of using his visit to America to strictly lecture politicians and the public about the moral failures of a nation that has drifted far from upholding Catholic ideals about life and family, Francis offered us something to aspire to.
In pointing to the legacies of American heroes, such as Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton, he reminded us that the principles they fought for are essential to the idea of the nation they served and loved. And in doing this, he asked us to consider how we’re measuring up.
“In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream,” he concluded his speech to Congress.
So what was Francis up to during his time with us? The headlines may have been muddled, but the message wasn’t. One year later, the question that remains is whether we’re still listening.