Pope Francis in America

MICHAEL L O’NEILL.

A Scot who lives in Florida found much wisdom in talks given by Pope Francis during his recent visit to the USA, which will take time to digest and apply to current events.  Here he reflects on the appeal of the pope who took the name of Francis.

‘Siempre, Adelante!’/ ‘Always, Forward!’  Invoking this motto of Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missioner of California (1713-1784), during the homily at the open air Mass for Serra’s canonisation on September 23rd in Washington, DC, Pope Francis described the vocation of all Christians, as well as his understanding of his present mission as pope: preach the gospel (of mercy and compassion), sometimes use words (to quote his namesake, Francis of Assisi).

The pope received an extraordinary welcome everywhere he went during his six days in the United States, in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.  Admittedly, this is a more ‘churchgoing’ nation than other rich and ‘secular’ countries, with the largest Christian denomination Roman Catholics, the second largest group ‘lapsed’ Roman Catholics, whether now members of other denominations or ‘nones’, so it is likely to be receptive territory for a papal visit.  In addition, here as elsewhere, Francis has received a lot of very favourable publicity for his outreach to people on the margins of society, and for his disinclination to condemn people, such as homosexuals, who have been a favourite target of American Catholic ‘traditionalists’ and ‘evangelicals’.

No visitor in the 40 years I have lived in this country has received the public attention Francis did.  Tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of people waited for hours to greet him wherever he went.  He stopped the motorcade to meet people, kiss babies, and show particular attention to the physically and mentally disabled and their caregivers.  There was blanket coverage on network and cable television that sidelined the presidential campaigns.  Whether it was the children in the school in Harlem, the prisoners in the Philadelphia jail, the homeless at Catholic Charities in Washington, DC, people responded to his kindness, with his message of respect and compassion for all.

As I listened to the pope’s homilies and speeches, I realised how he set his agenda as pope by taking the name Francis.  Everything I hear and read by Pope Francis, from his short morning homilies to his public addresses like the ones to Congress and the UN, remind me of Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries, in particular his chapter on Francis of Assisi, and Dominican Albert Nolan’s Jesus Before Christianity.

From what little I know of Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became pope, in particular as Jesuit provincial from 1973 to 1979 in Argentina, during the 1976-1983 ‘Dirty War’ of the Argentine military dictatorship, he was no ‘profile in courage’, but did try to protect at least some of those Jesuits and others who were.

It seems he had a conversion experience since that time, at least remotely similar to the experiences of the four Americans whose historical memory he singled out in his address to Congress, who ‘shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people….Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God…. A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton’.

It seems to me that the appeal of Pope Francis to those who are emotionally affected in a positive sense by the way he presents himself, and the radical content of what he says, is his humility in the admission of his own faults, and the sincerity of his commitment in spite of them, to following ‘the way’.  It’s a tall order for anyone.  What he also said of Merton to Congress is another challenge to himself:

‘Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.  He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.’

Michael L O’Neill is a retired US defense attorney

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