Our response must be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. – Pope Francis
I was lucky enough to see Pope Francis twice this week. On Tuesday, I was part of the relatively small delegation that greeted his first steps in the US at Andrews Air Force Base. On Thursday, I stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands, watching him address Congress and bowing our heads as he blessed the crowd – especially the children.
On this week’s Catholic Stuff podcast, cohost Fr. Michael O’Laughlin said: “Expect good things… Whenever the Pope comes, amazing things result.” I’m not expecting Congress to heed the warnings and instructions the Pope gave them. I don’t expect them to even realize how excoriating his remarks are to the priorities both parties have set for our nation. (Regardless of the crazy storm of news this morning.)
But already this week, I have witnessed people side by side, joyful in their faith, renewed in mercy and vigor. I have seen Facebook posts honoring him (some with with misquotes, but many with real ones) from people who haven’t considered themselves part of the Church for years.
Regardless, focusing on singular moments misses the bigger point. The Holy Father spoke movingly of our addiction to individualism — the poison of our culture that allows each of us to believe that our own priorities, our own comfort, our own preferences outweigh that of each of our communities. This isn’t just a call to culture — it is one to each of us. We must remember we are not the main players in each of our own lives.
By highlighting Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis honored four people with deep, unwavering belief in the value of the human person and a commitment to improving the condition of the broader human family. All four of these Americans stepped out of the comfort of just taking care of themselves to engage in the dialogue that the pope highlights as so important.
Merton, in particular, has been important in forming my heart. His openness to God, to humanity, to unity, to conversation, to prayer — none of these can be minimized for their ability to change souls and the world.
Looking around the West Lawn of the Capitol yesterday, it was impossible not to think of one of my favorite Merton passages:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Respect for the criminal, for the elderly, the poor, for every soul as the pope implored congress to remember yesterday — all of this stems from the knowledge that each of us is innately beloved by God. That beloved-ness, when acknowledged, flows back through us as mercy and justice. Living in the life of God, like Merton, like Day, draws us into greater communion with other people as well. Does it matter if we know exactly what that looks like? Can we just do our best to heed Pope Francis’s reminders and know that God walks with us? Merton would say yes:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
For more reports and reflections on the Pope’s visit from members of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of the Catholic Women Bloggers Network (CWBN), please visit “A Walk In Words With Pope Francis.”