As Pope Francis set out on his first trip to the United States he again asked for our prayers. In addition to the many worshipers and prayers he received, every papal step and message was also “blessed” with the scrutiny and spin of the media, hasty to keep score on the Pope’s liberal or conservative views and to claim victory for expedient political gain.
From the importance of the family, religious freedom and the environment to the battle against ideological and religious extremism, inequality and violence, the Pope’s message was careful not to pick sides in the raging political debates of the day. In his address to the U.S. Congress, he called for a “spirit of openness and pragmatism,” which as evidenced by thought leaders of the past can best be achieved through a “capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
Unfortunately, ideologues and pundits are better served by polarizing headlines than calm debate and thoughtful introspection. To suggest that the Pope’s views on religious liberty justify the actions of a Kentucky county clerk against legally married homosexuals is as much of an exaggeration as to say that Pope Francis is against the Keystone pipeline because of his views on the environment. His was a more universal message.
If there is one word, which the Pope emphasized more than any other in his message to the American people, it is the importance of *individual* responsibility and decorum in society. By citing the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis suggests that individuals can make a positive difference. While we may disagree on some of their views, the dreamers cited by the Pope are all individuals who professed their ideas in a spirit of good will and compromise.
If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is not founded on the size of the US economy or strength of the military. It is based on the fact that individuals do have a voice in American society. Whether in a church, at the workplace or in the political process, individuals – informed by their personal relationship with God – can and must find their calling and stay true to their faith. That doesn’t mean, however, that the right to exercise even strongly held views legitimizes doing harm or injustice to others. Interestingly, this leads us directly back to the Pope’s reverence for family values.
Even in the best of families there are disagreements. Siblings squabble and couples fight at times. The solution is not to “throw the bums out” let alone to subject loved ones to verbal or physical abuse. Instead, respect and empathy as well as the will to find common ground is what holds families together. Without a good portion of healthy pragmatism and compromise, marriages end in divorce, children are abused or bullied and families fall apart – an epidemic far more threatening to the “richness and beauty of family life” than the advent of gay marriage, which has no intention of harming anyone.
I pray that our politicians, colleagues and neighbors heed the Pope’s message to uphold the Golden Rule – to demonstrate the same good will and respect that we expect of our brothers, sisters, parents and children. By listening more, fighting less and working toward pragmatic solutions based on shared principles, Americans can stay true to the strong spirit and cultural heritage, which the Pope so lauded on his visit to the United States.
In short: Pope Francis urges individual Americans to show the greatness of their country by keeping their hearts and minds open to the needs of others.