A pastoral visit

By Donna Brazile, NEA Columnist

His Holiness Pope Francis left Washington, D.C., and this town was, at least momentarily, transformed with excitement, positivity, hope, even joy. People of every status wanted to get close to this remarkable man. Even those who only saw him wave from his car were left smiling and happy.

Everything, of course, did not come up all roses. There were bitter charges that the pope was being political. But, you know, that is the nature of Washington today. It says more about the people who make the charge, than the pope.

The pope bases his sermons by drawing on ethical and moral values. No further evidence of that is needed than that his positions cut across party lines. As a practicing Catholic of deep faith, I should know.

When I worked in government in the 1990s, Washington had members in both parties who were pro-life and for limiting marriage. In each party, there were substantial numbers who supported strict environmental standards. And there actually was a majority in both parties who voted for comprehensive immigration reform, which included amnesty legislation.

So it says a lot that about the state of our politics, not the pope, when people can't civilly hear a spiritual leader take positions that don't follow our narrow, corrosive, partisan talking points.

The pope also addressed the clerics who administer to his flock and urged them to shift their positions from finger-pointing, rigid orthodoxy, and scolding or lecturing, to listening and ministering by kindness and nudging. If that approach caught on in politics, it would be a major reform.

At the White House, the "people's pope" staked out his spiritual guidance with gentleness. Pope Francis opened his remarks saying, "As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families."

Later, while touring the Ellipse around the White House, he motioned for the Secret Service to allow a little girl, stopped by them, to come to him. She is the American daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants. She handed Francis a letter. In a childish scrawl, she asked for his help to keep her parents with her, a reminder of the sacrifices and impact of deportation.

The pope used a feather's touch on the church's well-known positions on abortion and marriage, noting that he was heading to Philadelphia to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family.

He spoke of the church's commitment to building "an inclusive and tolerant" society, and to safeguarding "the rights of individuals and communities," and "to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination."

He movingly supported "the right to religious liberty," a freedom he called "one of America's most precious possessions."

The pope's most fervent remarks were for saving our world's environment. "Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation," he said. "We are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed."

He invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s reference to a "promissory note" that America owes its children, to leave them a world safe from the extremes of ravaging weather. Like it or lump it, the pope believes confronting climate change is a moral imperative.

Pope Francis began his address to a joint session of Congress by noting dignitaries by title, and ending with "dear friends." This was a very personal speech, addressed warmly to the individual.

The role of a pope, as a bishop reminded us, is more than pastoral. It is also prophetic. And like the prophets of the Old Testament, that can mean being an irritant to a recalcitrant people.

Pope Francis described religious and secular fundamentalism that reduces the world to good and evil: "No religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.

"Politics is ... an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good," he counseled. "I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves ... but I encourage you in this effort."

He said later, "Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order ... to do our best."

The pope added, "It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same."

That, friends, is an unmistakable message for all of us in this bitter, polarized, political climate that we've been miserably stuck in.

There is considerable wisdom in Pope Francis' address to Congress, and in his moving sermons as he travels across this nation. It's truly time to listen, to discern and to reflect on these words to find the kernels of wisdom he left with us to mull over. Thank you, Pope Francis, for your words and example. You will remain in my thoughts and prayers.

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