Our Vicar at The Episcopal Church of the Ridge, Father Tom DiMarco, will be on a well-earned vacation this week, and we were joking about who would substitute for him at church services. Since Pope Francis will be here in the U.S., perhaps he could be asked to fill in this Sunday, as part of an ecumenical outreach to our Protestant congregation? Father Tom laughed, as well he should. But I wonder what Pope Francis would speak with us about, were he here?
Having read a little about Pope Francis (but not nearly enough), I suspect that he might talk about justice and mercy in this, the greatest of the world’s democracies. We live in the richest country in the world in terms of wealth per person, but not the country with the world’s highest median wealth. How can that be? In the United States today, a very small proportion of our people (what many in national politics speak of as “the one percent” but is more accurately one-hundredth of one percent) have almost incomprehensible wealth – and yet millions of Americans struggle to find the money to go to a doctor. How would the Pope describe that level of inequality? We in America have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, with some 40% of African-American children living below the poverty line. In South Carolina, the figures are even worse. Would the Pope speak with us about healing the sick, or feeding the hungry?
One issue that is certainly on Pope Francis’ mind this week is the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees entering Europe, trying to escape from the multitude of factions fighting one another in the Middle East. As a nation we have not been responsible for the worst of the atrocities there, but certainly we were responsible for announcing to the world “Mission Accomplished” after we destabilized the region. Along with the rest of the world (and in particular along with the wealthy countries in the Middle East itself), we failed to stabilize it again. The Pope is an outspoken advocate for helping the helpless, and doing so with a priority much higher than trying to affix blame. From an Old World perspective, the difference between a desperate refugee and an illegal immigrant is subtle and frequently indistinguishable. As a Latin American himself, the Pope would probably note that we have our own crisis with illegal immigration here in the New World. Are we in America doing all we can, in both cases? Would the Pope speak with us about welcoming the stranger, whether from the Old World or the New?
One of Pope Francis’ recurring themes is our responsibility as this generation’s stewards of the resources and beauty of the Earth we have all inherited. When Democrats and Republicans point at one another and argue about the science behind human-caused climate change, that’s politics. When the Pope looks at the world and sees it as a responsibility for which he is personally accountable during his short time on Earth, that’s not politics; that is religion. Would the Pope speak with us about our shared responsibility to take better care of what my Episcopal Prayer Book calls “this, our island home”?
I’ve convinced myself that Pope Francis will not be giving the homily at the Episcopal Church of the Ridge this coming Sunday. But I suspect those of us who listen to the news this week will nevertheless hear his homily, given before much larger audiences. All of us could do a lot worse than to listen to what Pope Francis says, and search our own deepest beliefs to see what we, as Americans, need to do in order to bring ourselves more in harmony with the message he has for all of us.