Sunday Long Read: Lessons from Pope Francis

Pope Francis, I love. He is a good man, with a warm heart and a big moral imagination. And I think he had such an impact on his visit here as he’s had around the world because he cares so deeply about the least of these. And in that sense, expresses what I consider to be as a Christian the essence of Christianity.

…I think it’s really useful that he makes us uncomfortable in his gentle way. That he’s constantly prodding people’s consciences and asking everybody all across the political spectrum, what more you can do to be kind, and to be helpful, and to love, and to sacrifice, and to serve.  —President Barack Obama on Pope Francis, October 2, 2015

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I understand the sentiment. I was glued to the television during Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. I was amazed and inspired by his interactions with so many people, from the President to prisoners. So I took a few days to really consider what I could learn from him on both a personal and a professional level.

Clearly, he has much to teach from a religious and spiritual aspect. For example, I found myself asking what more I could do to serve. Is my busy schedule a valid concern, or am I hiding behind that as an excuse, and merely need to organize my schedule in a tighter way? And speaking of the aforementioned prisoners–does everyone have the capacity to change–even the most hardened prisoner? I’m not sure I agree. But his words persuaded me to at least consider the possibility.

That persuasive ability is not only the hallmark of a great religious leader, but also is the hallmark of a great speaker. Pope Francis excelled in that regard. So his addresses and remarks also can teach us about the power of speaking and connecting with an audience.

Among my personal three highlights? First, the remarks he delivered during his White House welcoming ceremony.

Courtesy The White House

Right away, he showed that he fearlessly would wade in the waters of some of this country’s most impassioned debates–forthrightly but gently. (Remarks begin at the 23:36 mark.)

Mr. President, I am deeply grateful for your welcome in the name of all Americans. As a son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.

He then sought immediately to reassure his audience his desire to have a conversation–neither preach nor admonish.

I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue in which I hope to listen to and share many of the hopes and dreams of the American people. (Emphasis mine.)

He talked about the importance of issues like climate change. And he quoted an interesting person to drive home his point.

Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded, which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities, our societies. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note, and now is the time to honor it.

That phrase most certainly caught my attention.

Second, Pope Francis delivered a brilliant address before a Joint Meeting of Congress.

Courtesy C-SPAN

I noticed that he commanded a deep knowledge and understanding of American history. (His grasp of our history is perhaps firmer than that of most Americans.) That speaks to good research, and the care taken to learn his audience, as well as the stories and character of the cities he would visit.

And he found an occasion again to mention Dr. King, as well as three other Americans during his address. The four people seem so different, but the power and purpose of their dreams unite them.

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.

Pope Francis sought to connect with his audience, which he did in a variety of ways. He spoke in English, a language that he says he hasn’t yet mastered. (I thought he delivered his remarks well. I can only imagine how I’d sound if I had to deliver an address in Italian.)

He also used concepts and phrases that are not only familiar to American ears, but also familiar values that we Americans like to use to define ourselves:

“…the land of the free and the home of the brave…”

“The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. (Emphasis mine to underscore the values we as Americans like to say we hold dear: hard work, sacrifice, future focus.)

“God Bless America!”

He also used figures that would be familiar to his audience. For example, Moses:

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

Third, his remarks at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

Courtesy Vatican in English

As important and as expertly delivered as I found Pope Francis’ remarks at the White House and before Congress tp have been, I found his words at the correctional facility to be the most powerful. Using the metaphoric and literal value of the washing of feet, Pope Francis taught an awesome lesson about grace, forgiveness and humility. And again, he was brilliant.

He didn’t sugar coat the severity the prisoners’ situation. Or ours:

It is a difficult time, one full of struggles. I know it is a painful time not only for you, but also for your families and for all of society. Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.

The symbolic value of feet washing, born from its practical value:

In those days, it was the custom to wash someone’s feet when they came to your home. That was how they welcomed people. The roads were not paved, they were covered with dust, and little stones would get stuck in your sandals. Everyone walked those roads, which left their feet dusty, bruised or cut from those stones. That is why we see Jesus washing feet, our feet, the feet of his disciples, then and now.

And two lines I found most profound:

Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed.

Finally, these brilliantly constructed lines which challenge the view that criminals are beneath contempt–a view with which I largely agree:

It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities. It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society. 

I’ve listed only three examples of the speeches, remarks and homilies Pope Francis delivered in Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia, but they are the three that most resonated with me. All told, his visit was an extraordinary one–and one that still reverberates with the public.

Pope Francis had much to teach during his papal visit. I absorb those lessons still.

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