Justice Perspective: Pope Francis' challenge to American Catholics

by DEACON DON WEIGEL
Tue, Nov 17th 2015 09:00 am
Catholic Charities of Buffalo
Pope Francis spoke before a joint session of Congress in September. (File Photo)
Pope Francis spoke before a joint session of Congress in September. (File Photo)

In the six days that Pope Francis visited the United States, he was able to command the attention of virtually everyone in the country. By spending time in the nation's Capital, the home of the United Nations and Wall Street, and the birthplace of American freedom, he was able to speak to and reflect on the great icons of what it means to be American.

He visited President Obama, spoke to the World Meeting of Families, addressed the United Nations, spent time with the homeless, schoolchildren and the Little Sisters of the Poor. But through all of his homilies, speeches and remarks, perhaps the most far reaching in importance for America was his address to the joint session of Congress.

It was a historic event, to be sure, being the first time that a pope has ever had the opportunity to speak before the joint session. And Pope Francis certainly did not waste the chance to tackle some of the challenges that confront America.

If you watched his address, or read it afterwards, you know that it was wide ranging and insightful. Pope Francis dealt with particular issues facing us such as immigration, the refugee crisis, the death penalty and the arms race. But there were three elements of his remarks that stood out for me as particularly important messages for American Catholics.

First, Pope Francis made it clear that he was addressing not only the senators and representatives in front of him, but through them, "the entire people of the United States." As the leader of the Catholic Church, he was modeling for us the attitudes and perspectives that we should take in confronting the issues of our country. In other words, as he addressed the entire people of the United States, he invited us to follow him in taking the same positions as he was going to take. Reading his speech with that in mind makes it a teaching document, not just observations or remarks.

Secondly, Pope Francis used the phrase "the common good" six times in this relatively short address. This phrase has a specific meaning in Catholic social teaching, and comes from the Vatican II document, "Gaudium et spes." It means the "sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily."  In other words, as we Americans put so much emphasis on individual rights, the Church would remind us that our social goal is the full development of all people, not just some at the expense of others.

Thirdly, the pope mentioned several great Americans that he said "offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality." They are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Certainly the first two are known to just about everyone, and are remembered for their accomplishments in helping to define our country as a land of freedom, diversity and inclusion.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was praised for her "social activism, her passion for justice and the cause of the oppressed." Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk was held up as a "man of prayer," but also as a "thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time ... a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions." By holding them up as examples, Pope Francis seems to be telling us to be social activists, to challenge the status quo, and work for justice and peace.

Pope Francis, in his brief visit to our country, helped us to consider how to live our faith in 21st century America. Let's not miss the opportunity to do so.

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services.  He may be reached at deacondon@gmail.com  

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