Pope Francis's Address Reminds America of What She Really Stands For

argentina   circa 2013  stamps...
argentina circa 2013 stamps...

In all the speculation leading to Pope Francis's address to the Joint Session of Congress, few expected to hear a sweeping reminder of four exceptional American visionaries -- nothing less than a spiritual Mount Rushmore. Francis said it plainly, "I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people."

Just when we really needed it, the Pope calmly restated some basic fundamentals of what constitutes the soul of the American experiment, qualities Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." In a time where nativism, fear, harsh political rhetoric, and appeals to religious distrust captivate our media and stain our national discourse, a stranger came amidst us and gently redirected our attention back to, as he said, "Four representatives of the American people."

First invoked was Lincoln, as the protector of American liberty. Next, not surprisingly, was the Pope's praising Martin Luther King, Jr. as the extender and enlarger of those liberties.

The next two names, while likely familiar to many Roman Catholics, were surprising to hear praised in the halls of Congress -- radical activist Dorothy Day, who created the Catholic Worker Movement on behalf of the poor and powerless, and Thomas Merton, a reclusive monk, drawn to the life of a hermit, who paradoxically also lived a life of political engagement and religious dialogue.

What binds these four citizens is their unrelenting restless engagement with what represents true freedom. Each was controversial in their time (Francis called the resistance they faced "many crisis, tensions and conflicts"), and all were perceived as somehow threatening, upsetting. When Merton died on an Asian interfaith tour, he was confounding those who felt a committed Roman Catholic monk should have nothing to say to Buddhist monks, and that a man committed to living as a hermit should not be loudly condemning the Vietnam war. Dorothy Day was a thorn in the side of the male Roman Catholic hierarchy because of her radical stands, and an equally harsh critic of an economic system that served to grind down the poor.

King paid for his agitation for racial equality and justice with his life. Lincoln's work would also cost him his life. When the Pope evokes their names now, and politicians applaud their values years later, we should never forget that Francis was presenting a quartet of powerfully disturbing individuals. He knew exactly what he was doing, because their work for liberty was also work for community, solidarity, and a decent common life. When Day wrote her autobiography, she titled it "The Long Loneliness," because of the price such souls pay for giving us back our best selves. She said, "We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found the answer is community." The recluse Merton wrote, "Love is the true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves along--we find it with each other."

Lincoln and King believed that our common destiny as a nation was in forging equality--no matter what it took to uphold it, whether civil agitation and non-violence, or in a Civil War that was a bloody horror. The Pope mentioned the Gettysburg Address's evocation of "a new Birth of freedom," in his speech, but there were echoes as well of the Second Inaugural's final paragraph, stating "With malice towards none, with charity for all..." Such agitation is not the enemy of community, but its birth.

In offering back to us four American lives, lived for community, Francis carved out for us a new spiritual Mount Rushmore. My guess is that the Pope, in selecting them to tell us back our story, was keenly aware that the four would not have been so effective politically if they had not been profoundly spiritual; and that they made such effective troublemakers not because they were radicals, but because as believers, they so deeply embodied core American ideals.

Pope Francis traveled a long way to help us remember who we are.