He nudged, he didn’t push. He implied, he didn’t bash. He winked, figuratively, he didn’t stare anyone down.
In his address to U.S. lawmakers on Thursday, Pope Francis didn’t openly deride our capitalist system or our struggles with racial inequality, same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration or treatment of the poor and disadvantaged.
Instead, the “people’s pope” disarmed his audience in a packed session of Congress when he noted the pleasure of addressing the political leaders of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The Argentine, making his first trip to the United States, revealed a foreigner’s admiration for the towering America of Frank Capra movies and everything it stands for.
While some politicos in the chamber were lukewarm on the pope’s agenda — and one, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, of Arizona, even boycotted the speech — others clearly were touched by the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, sitting behind the pope as he spoke, wiped away tears with his handkerchief. Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuba in the 1950s, swallowed hard as his eyes grew moist when Pope Francis said: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
The pope reminded us that we are viewed across the world as “the land of dreams,” the place where refugees flee to give a better life to their kids.
He might look up to America, but he made clear that we can do much more to live up to its founding ideals.
The pope was more restrained in Cuba, lodging just subtle jabs at the Castro brothers’ repressive regime. In addressing the lawmakers of a world power, the pope again was gentle but, more often, more pointed. Pope Francis crafted a multi-layered speech connecting current events and global ideas and interpreting them with his view from above the fray.
The pope showed that he is a master of the subtle and veiled comment. His statements could be interpreted several ways, with listeners hearing what most touches their hearts and aligns with their beliefs. He reprimands with compliments, reminiscent of a kindly teacher who notes a failure by saying you’re not living up to your potential. You’re flattered and want to do better.
True, the pontiff’s call to action dealt with issues mainly in line with a liberal agenda — climate change, acceptance of immigrants, ending the death penalty. But the call to do better was directed to all.
Surprisingly, the pontiff was less explicit in condemning abortion, stepping over the subject altogether except to say we must defend life at “every stage of development” and then pivoting to criticize the death penalty. But his call for an end to abortion had been deftly made.
He also touched on same-sex marriage, or did he? “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Support or opposition?
The pope’s overall message to the land of the free was simple — the Golden Rule that we learned at school, in church and at home: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So much of the pontiff’s speech was open to interpretation. However, there’s no mistaking what Pope Francis was telling this fractured Congress.