This was a leader in action. Would that members of Congress, often engaged in partisan disputes that stifle good legislation and sometimes – as with a threat of a federal shutdown over Planned Parenthood – the government itself, would follow the example of Pope Francis.
The pope, in an unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress, called for compassion and help for undocumented immigrants, for greater efforts to help the poor and a sharing of the wealth of the world, for a meaningful dialogue on climate change and for an end to the death penalty.
Then he passed on lunch with congressional leaders and dined instead with the homeless.
This was a leader.
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He came head on to the topic of immigration in a way that resonated even in the politically charged halls of Congress. “We, the people of this continent,” he said, “are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
On climate change, he warned of “environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” He talked of those same things, and received a standing ovation for his remarks, at the United Nations in New York, and the public embrace of the pope was to continue in Philadelphia. Peace, protecting the environment, supporting the Iran nuclear deal ... all have been his themes as he has stepped outside the comfort zone of most religious leaders.
In the course of his congressional speech, he invoked Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement), Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who was a famed writer and pacifist, and the Golden Rule.
This was a leader.
In Washington, the pope acknowledged, to cheers, his church’s belief in the sanctity of life, a remark some took as an affirmation of the church’s opposition to abortion, but quickly he turned to his opposition of the death penalty. His comments were balanced but strong, and he did not, as some Republicans believed he might, lecture the Congress on social issues. But he made clear his progressive views and his belief that the world needs more compassion and less contention.
This is a pope who recognizes that disputes around the world are not always black and white and that it is not wise for people or nations to boil disputes down to “the righteous and the sinners.” Said he, “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”
If the members of Congress had been watching, they would have seen tens of thousands of people standing on the National Mall after his address, cheering the pope, just as he was cheered everywhere he went. There was a reason for that, beyond his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope had something to say, something to heal divisions, to call people, Catholics and all people, toward a goal of helping all members of humankind.
Yes, this was a leader.