Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis Graces our Nation's Capital

Pope Francis and the president at the White House,
the interpreter between them.  AFP/Getty.
I am not a Catholic, but I love Pope Francis. The minute he took that name, I knew he  would be a special spiritual leader. And he is.  My daughter Elissa, who is Catholic, now calls me a “Pope Francis Catholic.”  My daughter Michelle thinks Pope Francis is here at this time for a reason, because "We need God on earth."  Boy, that's for sure. The Pope's visit to our nation's capital moved us, like it did tens of thousands of others, even members of Congress.  Amazing and awesome. A humble, authentic, compassionate Pope. "And don't forget to pray for me."  I have so many thoughts.      

God is Italian 
Okay, it’s my heritage.  His name is Francis like my dad and after my grandmother Francesa, after whom I am named.  His beloved grandmother was Rosa, like my mother's name, Rose. But the funny thing is my Italian-born grandparents, on both my mom and dad’s sides of the family, were protestant. Yes, and they were irreverent toward the Pope. “Just an ordinary guy, nothing special.” Oh, the great discussions the adults had, in Italian, around the dinner table in Buffalo, NY, as we stuffed ourselves with my grandma’s home-made bread and garlic encrusted pork roast!  I think I always thought that if there is a God, he must be Italian. Pope Francis proves it! If God is love, then this Pope, this son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, is God. Because I think God is not just “out there” or “up there,” he/she is transcendent and everywhere: in nature, in the grandeur of the universe, and also within us and among us.     

God's Interpreter on Earth is a little Latino guy
And God’s interpreter on earth is not a grand person or prophet preaching and proselytizing, but a young bespectacled Latino priest who hardly reaches the Pope’s shoulder but faithfully follows him everywhere he goes.  Like a Pancho Sanchez to Don Quixote. This anonymous man, never introduced, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, was right behind the Pope from the minute he got off the Alatalia plane from Rome and was greeted by President Obama, to the moment he left Washington, accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry. Our little interpreter was with the Pope at the White House, in Congress, at Catholic University, at St. Matthews, at St. Patrick's. He followed the Pope into the crowds. He stood behind him on the balcony at the US Capitol.  He helped us understand. He interpreted the Pope's prayers. Otherwise, he just left us to our own conclusions.  He's now with the Pope in New York.

The Pope’s Fantastic Four
In his wide-ranging and beautiful talk to the US Congress, in English, which I know from experience is so hard to do, the Pope mentioned four Americans who embody the ideals of our country and moral principles for the world: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  For the Pope, these four, the latter two less known but maybe now more prominent, represent the highest of American ideals.
*Abraham Lincoln, Liberty for all
*Martin Luther King Jr, Freedom, justice, and "freedom in plurality"
*Dorothy Day, organizer of Catholic workers in the 1930s, social justice and social activism. 
*Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who died in Thailand in 1968, friend of the Dalai Lama and admirer of Zen Buddhism, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.  

From the balcony of the US Capitol. AFP/Getty.
People are hungry for spiritual sustenance and simple goodness.
Wow the crowds! I’ve been to plenty of marches and protests in DC. I've walked crowded streets and pushed my way into the Metros to get to the Mall and back to Dupont Circle, where I lived for 17 years. But I’ve never seen so many people of all backgrounds and ages lining the streets of DC with such joy, such emotion, throngs of people at every venue and along the Popemobile route, just to be near him, in the same place at the same time.  When the TV cameras panned the huge crowd at the Pope's mass at the National Basilica at the Catholic University of America, I spotted Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's only elected official in Congress, without a vote but with a voice. Here she was, just a face in the crowd. A huge multitude.  And what cheers, applause, elation, euphoria. Even in Congress. Like the cheers at a World Cup soccer stadium!      

The Golden Rule -- The Common Good -- America, a land of dreams
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Pope intoned.The Golden Rule is so simple and so true, yet somehow so difficult to implement. But the Pope makes it sound easy, and shows us the way. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for those in poverty, for refugees, the sick, the elderly. Remember we are all immigrants. I am an immigrant; we are all immigrants.  This is what unites us; it should not divide us. How can we turn away refugees seeking a better life. How can we turn our backs on the most vulnerable among us. We can work together for peace and keep the "common good" paramount. "We can create an economy that is modern, inclusive and sustainable."  We can create "a culture of care."  The Pope had lunch with 200 clients of Catholic Charities at St. Patrick in the City. He went into the crowds, to touch, to bless, to give hope, and to receive it.  We can join him. "I am so happy that America is still a land of dreams," he told us. 

Mother Earth: Care for our "Common Home"  
St. Francis loved the earth, the natural world, and all its animals.  Pope Francis is the reincarnation of St. Francis in our time, and he is addressing the harm we have done to our planet that can be controlled if there is a will to do it. We need to take care of our "Common Home," he wrote in the first-ever encyclical on the environment; this cannot wait for the next generation. He repeated this message to Congress: "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."

"God Bless America."
I have never, ever been so moved at anyone saying "God Bless America," as I was when I heard the Pope say it.  He said it so meaningfully, so sincerely, with a passion, with deep appreciation and a beautiful smile. He said it as if he were really asking God to bless this country, to bless its ideals, to bless its diverse people. When the Pope said "God Bless America" after his speech at the White House and after his speech to the US Congress, it was actually thrilling.  If anyone can pray for us, and get God to listen, it's Pope Francis.  

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