Pope Francis’s recent visit affected more than his direct audiences (Congress, Catholics, the United Nations, and more) and more than our local school and road closures, it affected the perception of religious life. He did not preach to politicians, he spoke as much or more through his actions than his words, and he refused to be pegged as anyone other than he. For me, as a rabbi, Pope Francis is an exemplar of religious leadership for today’s world.
I admit, I was deeply concerned about the separation of church and state in the opportunity given to Pope Francis to address a joint session of the United States Congress. In Pope Francis’s address, though, he did not lobby for particular policies; he did not pontificate on any particular issue, political or moral; and he did not call for greater obedience to any particular doctrine. He presented himself, his perspectives, and his commitments.
His address was an invitation to dialogue, not just with Congress but also with Americans. He named issues which we must discuss: immigration, climate change, family, the sanctity of life, economic justice, social justice, peace, diplomacy, and more. Rather than stake claims, though, he framed the conversation with American cultural icons: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. He wove together the woof of their social and political achievements along the warp of their religious convictions. In so doing, Pope Francis invited us to greater civic involvement through lived religious commitments in cooperation with others, even if we disagree, so that together we can pursue the common good.
Beyond giving a good speech, he walked his walk. He met with the powerful in our society and the downtrodden. He stopped his motorcade to kiss and bless the ill. He participated in a moving “multi-religious” ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Closer to home, Pope Francis made a surprise stop on his way to the World Meeting of Families Papal Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He stopped at Saint Joseph’s University to bless a statue commemorating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, which offered reconciliation between Jews and Christians. The statue, “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time” is only a few months old. Its symbolic imagery, especially in the way it reverses previous statues of synagogue and church personified, is powerful. Now, with Pope Francis’s blessing, it is even more powerful: the statue is the embodiment of the Pope’s valuing in words and action all that interfaith dialogue should be about.
In the days after Pope Francis left the United States, I was horrified to read that he seemed to have supported Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to do her job giving marriage licenses to those applying if they are same-sex couples. I was not horrified that the Pope might object to same-sex marriage; I rather expect it. I was horrified that he would support a paid government official refusing to do her job because she objected, too. It turns out that Pope Francis strongly supports conscientious objection as a human right; it is just that his meeting with her “should not be considered a form of support of her position.” That quotation is from a Vatican press statement clarifying the Pope’s actions. Again, whatever his beliefs, he refuses to have them misrepresented in such a divisive manner. That careful attention to the Pope’s public persona and his mission of dialogue impressed me even more than his actions or his speeches.
I love that America allows me to be both a Jew and a citizen without compromise. I love how Judaism helps me be a better informed, more active and caring citizen. America’s founding fathers went to great lengths to preserve the public square free from religious domination. It ought to be a place to stand together because of our religious convictions and talk. I am grateful Pope Francis set the tone for our conversation. May we speak with respect for each other, with dignity, and with common purpose.
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