ROME — When Pope Francis pulled up in his dark Fiat 500 to deliver his speech in front of a Joint Session of the United States Congress, many were expecting some sort of fire and brimstone rant about all that ails America. Instead, the pastoral pope gave something of a sermon that—aside from the fact he spoke in English—was classic Francis.
Pundits will no doubt politicize each morsel Francis fed them, but in what is truly classic Pope Francis, he offered something for everyone to think about but nothing for anyone to claim as their own. This is, of course, something he deals with daily as he works to diminish the dissension within his own divided Church which is often as partisan as any American political party.
In true Francis style, the pontiff proved that he really did understand his audience. Aside from getting in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” he also proved he knows how to preach in the context of the fast-paced American culture, especially when it comes to the family.
Francis, for instance, did not take the opportunity to rail against same-sex marriage, but focused instead on decisions many Americans face about starting their families at all. “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future,” he said. “Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”
For those who follow the pope’s every word from Rome, his newfound command of the American vernacular was perhaps the biggest surprise. He is not comfortable with the language, and the daily tutoring he had all summer clearly paid off, although one had the sense on occasion that his printed speech was written phonetically to help him turn his Latin accent into a comprehensible English.
Francis spoke of valuing the elderly and opening doors for the young. “I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights,” he said, repeating a theme he often preaches in Rome. “I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land.”
He also reiterated his views on war and conflict. “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion,” he said. “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.”
As he often does, he quoted his Laudato Si’ encyclical when he spoke about the environment but made a nod to the positive role of business, which he called “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world”—literally taking a page from the encyclical. “It 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.”
When Francis spoke about equality and called for dialogue, he quoted his Evangelii Gaudiu Apostolic Exhortation, saying it was his duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. “This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility,” he said, quoting his earlier text. “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”
Only when he spoke of immigration and the need for tolerance and acceptance did he veer from his usual stance, if only because in Europe he rarely talks to people who are sons and daughters of immigrants. No European nation sees itself as “a nation of immigrants.” In the Americas, however, he could speak as a fellow citizen of the continent at large. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said, perhaps for the first time addressing a group. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.”
Francis has also been an advocate of abolishing the death penalty, though in his address to Congress, he opened the discourse with a talk about all life, alluding to abortion without saying it, which earned a standing ovation. But when he quickly turned the point into one about abolishing the death penalty, some who were still clapping about the anti-abortion stance seemed confused about what they were applauding. He continued, “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
In closing, Francis hit just the right note, as he so often does: “In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people,” he said. “It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream. God bless America!”