Amtrak train #184 is my mobile office as I write this column en route from Washington, D.C., to New York City. I have just left a U.S. Capital totally energized by the presence of Pope Francis.
A lot of the pope's appeal is surely his gently charismatic persona, his smile, his simple gestures, his approachability as the "people's pope." People are attracted to him, and just want to be around him. He is truly giving a refreshing, somehow more welcoming "face" to the Catholic Church. This is all good, very good. But it is not enough.
My deepest hope is that we are all listening attentively to his message in its many dimensions. I pray that we are allowing that message to touch our hearts, challenge our assumptions, transform our ways of thinking, valuing and acting. As I, for one, listen to the Holy Father's words, I feel both affirmed and challenged, encouraged and chided. It is just the way the Gospel does it.
I felt that way when I listened to him speak to the 270 U.S. bishops at St. Matthew Cathedral. He thanked the Church in the United States, including us bishops. And he directed us to continue our work to heal the wounds of sexual abuse. He celebrated the U.S. Church's commitment to education and to the works of charity. And he called us to more vigorous defense of the vulnerable, migrants, and the earth, our "common home." He assured us that he is aware that we face many challenges, and knows that the field in which we sow faith - evangelize - is at times "unyielding." At the same time, he called us to care about the spiritual growth of our priests, and to grow ourselves in prayerful, trusting union with Christ.
In his address to the joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis again both affirmed and challenged the members of Congress and the entire American people. He celebrated our country as the home of the free and the land of the brave. And he challenged us to respect the transcendent dignity of every human being, and to respect human life at every stage of development. (I will admit that I wish he had named abortion as the primary, intentional danger to human life, whereas he did name capital punishment.) He affirmed our American legacy of welcoming immigrants, but challenged us to confront more effectively the refugee crisis ... along with poverty, polarization and religious extremism.
I listened today to a political analysis of Pope Francis' Congress address. The commentator noted that he counted nine papal remarks that appeared to line up with the political "right" and another nine that seemed to tilt to the "left." He wondered whether that was intentional on the pope's part?
I say, not a chance! The pope looks at life and the world through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Church. That teaching is his moral compass. And he just wants it to be ours, too. And this is how Pope Francis fulfills the mandate of Jesus to Peter: Strengthen your brothers (and sisters).