If, like me, you spend a lot of time with the cable TV news channels, you overdosed on the Pope last week. Whatever else of note happened during the eight days of Francis's visit to North America, it was not reported in these venues.
He had not reached the halfway point of his trip, when it began to feel like overkill. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Enough, already. I got it.
But with a little distance now from the hoopla, it occurs to me that the most important thing Francis said is entirely contained in the second paragraph of his first speech, the extraordinarily expansive address to the joint session of Congress.
After his greeting to that gathering of all the American lawmakers, he defined their job (perhaps in case some in attendance have forgotten):
”Each son and daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility," he noted. "Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.
“You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”
Everything else he said is commentary on that job definition and I have been wondering since then, in regard to his followup list of the many terrible issues of “the disturbing social and political situation of the world today,” if any in Congress are even a little bit shamed at their neglect of the common good.
The Pope admonished Congress about the money that has overtaken the American political system:
“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person,” he said, “it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.
“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its good, its interests, its social life.”
Following on, the Pope had something pertinent to say about terrorism, middle eastern refugees, America's immigrants, the death penalty, poverty, wealth inequality, war, climate change and, for us at this blog, elders too.
Below, are some short excerpts on each of these topics from the Pope's speech to Congress. As you go through them, recall what this and past Congresses have - and in particular, have not - said or done to address these urgent problems.
”Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion and ideological extremism.”
Refugees and immigrants:
”Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions...
“...the people of this continent 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 poverty, wealth and its relationship to war:
“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”
“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right to use natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.
“Business...can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
“[We must be] truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we must ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?
“Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money, money that is drenched in blood, often I innocent blood.”
The Pope visited a prison on Sunday. In the address to Congress, he had urged
”...global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
On climate change, he said that the common good he repeatedly referenced “includes the earth...our common home.” And then he quoted from his May 2015 Encyclical Letter about the environment titled, Laudato Si':
”We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots concern and affect us all...
“I call for a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.
“I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies...”
I understand that Pope Francis's address to Congress and his other speeches are inspirational in nature. But they are deadly serious yet I cannot recall when either the Senate or House of Representatives last spoke of these problems with anything but a glancing phrase now and then.
There are many things about which I disagree with the Pope. But his discussion and enumeration of these grave issues is more than Congress has done by magnitudes.
Essentially, Congress has abdicated the job they were each elected to, the job that Pope Francis defined so well at the top of his speech: “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”
If that does not change, I believe we – humanity, that is – are doomed due to climate change alone. If I am wrong about that (or not) and the current political climate in Congress is permitted to continue, our way of life is as equally doomed.
Maybe you have to be Catholic to maintain the kind of expectation the Pope evinced. But in fact, although I am nominally Jewish, I practice no faith.
With that, however, I recognize that the Francis's influence carries – or can carry - beyond the 1.2 billion Catholics of the world. I would like to believe that the many days of Pope Francis in America will change the political behavior of enough people in power to make a difference.
As I said, though, I doubt it. More likely, all his fine words, counsel and urgings have already faded from the minds of those who were elected "to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good."
It is worth reading Pope Francis's entire address to Congress. You will find it here.