I was privileged to have been in attendance at many of Pope Francis' Washington events this past week. What came through so very clearly is that Francis is an American pope with a profoundly American message.
For two days, he held Washington captive. His visit to the capital was historic in ways big and small and was a marvel to behold. His every move was recorded, his words were analyzed, the issues he raised were noted, and his moving gestures were the subject of rich commentary.
While the policy challenges posed by Pope Francis were significant, what I found most striking was the way he was able to firmly ground his message within an American narrative. From his opening remarks in which he introduced himself as "a son of an immigrant family" to his address before Congress in which he focused on the values embodied in and the lessons to be learned from the lives and work of four "great Americans" (Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton), Francis spoke not as an outsider but as one of us.
More than that, there were subtle and not so subtle aspects of the two day visit to Washington that spoke of the amazing journey of the Catholic Church in America—a journey that has seen the many diverse ethnic immigrant groups who make up the Catholic community move from "the rejected stones to the cornerstone" of American life.
As I noted, in his opening remarks, Pope Francis identified with this American story, referring to himself "as a son of an immigrant family...happy to be a guest in this country which was largely built by such families". When Francis went on to describe the commitment of American Catholics to the "building of a society which is tolerant and inclusive...[that] rejects every form of unjust discrimination", he was reflecting an aspiration born of the very real and difficult experiences Catholics have faced during their time in America.
As late as the last century, Germans were shunned, Italians were scorned, and Irish were victims of cruel discrimination. Catholics, in general, were not viewed, by some, as real Americans. Many believed that Catholics should not be president, since their loyalty to the American Constitution was suspect. This was the reason why, in the 1920's, the popular Catholic governor of New York lost his bid for the presidency. And it was a major obstacle John Kennedy had to face down to be elected in 1960.
Today, Catholics have largely overcome this prejudice and have become central to the American experience and power structure. President Obama noted this in his welcoming remarks when he said, "Holy Father, your visit...reveals how much all Americans, from every background and every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America...feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating our children...”
And when Pope Francis appeared on the Capitol balcony to speak to the 50,000 who had gathered to greet him, one could not help but notice that the Congressional leadership that surrounded him, included Catholics of German, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, and Hispanic descent. Despite the rejection and adversity faced by their ancestors, all had risen to high elected office.
It was a uniquely American scene one worthy of reflection, since it tells a story that imparts important lessons (and responsibilities) on which the pontiff drew when he addressed two critical issues confronting America today: the worldwide refugee crisis and the influx of immigrants crossing the southern border.
In a teaching moment, during his address to Congress, Pope Francis reminded all Americans of what they should learn from their history noting that "In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dreams of building a better future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners...knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants...When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not...turn our back...rejecting the mindset of hostility."
And when he addressed the refugee crisis, the Pontiff presented Americans with a great challenge, saying "On this continent, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for their loved ones, in search of better opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way that is humane, just and fraternal"
His message, drawn from the experience of immigrants from every age, was summed up in the Golden Rule "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Developing this theme further, when addressing his fellow bishops, Francis encouraged them to be welcoming to the newest immigrants and refugees noting that to do so was not only the right thing to do, it would also enrich and add to the diversity of their communities.
A closing note: it was striking that in the very week that Pope Francis was pointing out these lessons drawn from the American Catholic experience, some Republican presidential aspirants and Congressional leaders were engaging in crude and vile Islamophobic attacks: with Ben Carson claiming that a Muslim couldn't be president because Islam was incompatible with the American Constitution, and Members of Congress rejecting President Obama's announcement that the US would increase the number of Syrian refugees we will welcome into the country, arguing that this increase could become a "pipeline for terrorists".
That these arguments echoed those made by bigots against Catholics or Jews was disturbingly obvious to those "who had eyes to see and ears to hear." And it reminds us of the truth that Francis sought to teach—that just as our nation's history is one of groups overcoming adversity in the never-ending search for justice and equality, we must face head on the never-ending challenge to be vigilant in the preservation and promotion of these very same values.