Last week’s column addressed the pending visit of Pope Francis to the United States, and speculated about what guidance he might share with us. He did not disappoint.
First of all, it is clear that Pope Francis is profoundly a friend of America, not just of American Catholics or even just of American Christians, but of all of us of whatever faith or (explicitly stated) of no faith at all. We do so many things well, and yet there are several that we as Americans could do better.
I thought he would speak with us about healing the sick or feeding the hungry. He spoke about both. He spoke not just to Congress but to all of us about our obligation to do more to correct the 21st-century imbalance between those of us he clearly sees as blessed with much more than enough, and those of us burdened with much less. This imbalance is not a part of the American heritage; correcting it is.
I thought he would speak with us about immigration, both legal and illegal, including political refugees from the Old World and economic ones from the New. He did that, too. The Biblical command that we welcome the stranger was one he mentioned repeatedly, and Pope Francis said we as a nation have recently fallen short in honoring our shared heritage. Himself the son of immigrants to the New World, he spoke both from his heart and from his own experience. I wonder whether Congress, including our own South Carolina members of Congress, heard Pope Francis say what I heard him say.
I thought he would remind us of our responsibilities as this generation’s stewards of our earthly environment and how we as a nation can do so much more than we are doing now. I wondered whether he would specifically speak with us about human-caused climate change, and he did that, too – directly and unequivocally. Pope Francis as a former chemical technician who went from that vocation to the priesthood knows more than many about the science of climate change; he certainly knows more than most of us (myself included) about our moral responsibility to take better care of our world.
There were also areas that I had not thought he would mention. I did not think he would spend much time speaking about the unborn, and their right to life – and that turned out to be the case; but I also didn’t think he would address capital punishment in a “right to life” context. In this, I was wrong. He spent a considerable amount of his time addressing Congress specifically about the injustice of capital punishment, condemning the practice rather than condemning the criminal. Coming from an institution responsible for the inhumanities of the medieval inquisition, his was a voice of repentance as well as a call to recognize repentance in others. Killing as a punishment for killing sounds like Old Testament justice and not New Testament mercy. Pope Francis left no doubt about which he enjoins us to follow.
And finally I did not think he would mention the need to provide guidance and mercy to prisoners themselves, notwithstanding the specific call to do so as a tenet of the Christian faith. Again, I was wrong. It is easy to underestimate Pope Francis, and in doing so one is frequently wrong.
But I was certainly right about one thing. Regardless of our individual religious beliefs, we have much to learn from Pope Francis – and, I hope we can all see more clearly today, we have much to do. We need to take that on, starting right here in Edgefield County, right here in South Carolina.