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Pope Francis Calls Forth the Best in Us

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Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in  Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

By Tony Stieritz
Archdiocese of Cincinnati Catholic Social Action Office Director

Pope Francis’s superstardom is back in Rome, and I already miss him.  Some of it has to do with his bold words and humble interactions with so many people, especially the poor.  But mostly it’s because of what he inspired us to be: our best selves.

 

As the election season and the threat of heightened partisanship among us looms ahead, this state of being will be increasingly difficult to maintain.  For some, Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. was like the prayer before the big football game between vying ideological agendas.  Nice words, but we showed up to win the game, not listen to the prayer, right?

 

I did notice some politicos and naysayers instinctively raise their ideological shields to erroneously critique this “radical” pope for attacking capitalism and meddling in debates about the science of climate change.  Others on the opposite end of the American political spectrum strained to overlook the pope’s reiteration of the Church’s teachings on the unborn and the family.  They really didn’t seem to care if they just widened the rift between the teams, even if the actual point of the pre-game prayer was to remind us we’re all really on the same team.  They missed out on the gem of the Holy Father’s blessing: a glimpse of our best selves, so we could all be better players.

 

Pope Francis is welcomed to the Speakers Balcony at the U.S. Capitol by members of Congress Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Doug Mills, pool)
Pope Francis is welcomed to the Speakers Balcony at the U.S. Capitol by members of Congress Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Doug Mills, pool)

I was blessed to have witnessed the Holy Father’s historic address to Congress from outside the Capitol – one of tens of thousands cheering his every point.  I proudly followed his references to some of our nation’s own heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  We are after all, he endearingly exclaimed, the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”  His starting point was to recognize the best in us as a people, where God’s light is already shining.  He saw this as well in other religions at the 9-11 prayer service; in the inmates in the correctional facility; in every struggling family, regardless of its shape and size, in Philadelphia.  Then he called us to follow that light into deeper relationships and dialogue, especially with those with differing views, so that, together, we can advance the common good.

Throughout his visit, Pope Francis highlighted a number of critical issues on our plate, including religious freedom, abortion, the death penalty, immigration, the environment, the nature of the family, jobs and worker justice, poverty, and international peace.  Each one of these concerns has involved a contest of political power to inch the ball down the field.  That’s of course how power typically works in any system, and we all have a responsibility to participate on some level.  Yet, on his flight back to Rome, the Holy Father put into words what we see him illustrate so frequently in his actions: “[T]he true power is to serve, to do service, to do the most humble services.”

By now, many of us have just become tired of the intransigent positions and power plays in public debates.  Our polarized society is increasingly replete with injury reports of broken relationships and bruised spirits all over the field.  What Pope Francis’s popularity made evident to me is that much of America has been aching to just have someone shine the light on our own common humanity again — some reminder of what the whole struggle is fundamentally about.  Until his visit, many of us were just tempted to leave the stadium.

 

Tony Stieritz, director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Social Action Office, left, and Pam Long Regional Director for the Social Action Office, right, pose for a photo with Congressman Steve Chabot. (Courtesy Photo)
Tony Stieritz, director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Social Action Office, left, and Pam Long Regional Director for the Social Action Office, right, pose for a photo with Congressman Steve Chabot. (Courtesy Photo)

I’m reminded of the heartening response from people of faith to the Archdiocese’s recent “Food for All” campaign.  Catholics and others of good will contributed over 1 million food items to local food pantries, two houses for local families through Habitat for Humanity, and over 12,000 letters to Congress asking for full funding for child nutrition programs.  As a welcome gift for Pope Francis, liberals and conservatives alike enthusiastically jumped into this campaign of charity and advocacy with little controversy – just good intentions.  Yes, because it helps the less fortunate.  But, also because we knew Pope Francis would like it.  Catholic or not, we all needed such a common point of inspiration, so we could first see where God was waiting to meet us in each other, especially in the poor and vulnerable.

 

In the Gospels, whenever Jesus would miraculously heal someone, he would often note, “Your faith has healed you.”  As we all settle back into business as usual in America, I pray that we have faith in what the Holy Father pointed out to us: the goodness in you and in me.  As ideological rhetoric and partisan attacks rapidly take over the airwaves and headlines once filled by Pope Francis, may we hold tight to his more promising gift to the U.S.  Dialoguing like we are in this together, we stand a better chance at moving America forward.

Posted September 30, 2015

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