Last night on CNN, John L. Allen, Jr. called Pope Francis the new ‘Nelson Mandela.’ Certainly, during these days, the pope is bearing witness to the world’s conscience. But, he is not Mandela. He is the pope.
The man chosen from the ends of the earth on the night of March 13, 2013 to shepherd the world’s one billion Catholics travels the globe in simple cars, he celebrates his birthday with the homeless, and he skips out on both White House and Congressional dinners in order to sup with the downtrodden. He is the pope of the poor from the periphery of the planet. His motto: Miserando atque eligendo — lowly, but chosen.
Today, he took to the center stage of the great hall of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Inside that august chamber, the world’s leaders have assembled across the decades to enact momentous decisions for our planet. Afterward, he prayed with representatives of the world’s religions, calling all to take up the task of our humanity. Anyone who see him, sees the poor. Who hears him, attends to the message of peace.
Takeaway one: Pope Francis does not find the center stage at the heart of global governance. He finds it at the margins of society and in the forgotten corners of our planetary community. Before he visited us here at the crossroads of the world, he sought us out at the remotest corners of the Earth. He tended to the wounds of our poor before he walked the halls of the powerful. His message: Remember the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. Before the rulers of the world, he spoke the name of the lowly. He shows us their face.
Continuing his journey today, the pope brought a message of peace and goodwill for all to that place of painful memory at Ground Zero. There, conscious of the atrocities to which mankind can sink, he lifted us up, bearing witness to the truth and good that calls us by name.
Takeaway two: He speaks to us a message of hope meant for everyone without distinction.
Like all Catholics, he has controversial opinions and holds to dogmatic truths. About many of these, he has been very clear. Yet, to date he has tried to communicate those messages, making use of a language common to all, focusing on what unites the world, rather than what divides us.
Thus, he does not speak about global warming in the main, but about care for our common home. He does not focus at length on traditional marriage to the exclusion of other concerns like the rights of prisoners, the migrant poor, and refugees. Rather, he reminds all of us that we are meant to be together, that none of us is meant to walk alone, that we must seek social friendship and build a culture of encounter, and that we are all indebted to the families – many of them immigrants — that built our land.
Takeaway three: The message of the pope is unity over conflict. He pronounces on the themes and the words, he paints the images and holds up the symbols that are understandable to all.
But, he does not neglect the truths that his Petrine ministry commands him to preach. In his meeting with American bishops at St. Matthew’s cathedral in Washington, D.C. he readied his hearers for things to come. There, he told the bishops that he will emphatically proclaim with them and the entire Church the Gospel of the Family in the city of brotherly love. Nor did he neglect this at the US House of Representatives.
In fact, before he left his hosts there, he imparted a word on the family, saying “I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme.”
But, this Jesuit pope who was once responsible for the formation of young aspirants to the priesthood, knows how to form souls entrusted to him. He knows there is a cadence and a rhythm, a pace and an appointed time for hard messages. As he said in his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he privileges space over time and wholes over parts. He rises above what he termed at the UN ‘declarationist nominalism.’
This man who once taught literature, who favors the works of the great psychologist-novelist Fydor Dostoevsky, knows that he will gain a better hearing and receptivity to his message if he approaches us first as a friend.
And so, first, he comes among us as a brother. He builds up our people, he reminds us of our greatness, and he sits at table with our least and most vulnerable ones. Then, he invites us all to pray for him or, if we cannot, to wish him well.
In this space of friendship, that is so opposed to reductionist schemes and polarizations, he opens our hearts and broadens our vision. He readies us for the harder truth he will soon impart.
Takeaway four: Today at both the United Nations and at Ground Zero, in the company of persons of goodwill and representatives of every religious belief, he held out a hand. He invited us to think with him on the entirety of his papal message, to understand his mission of mercy, not in parts, but as a whole anchored in the witness of his predecessors Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
These days, we are receiving a visit from an expert pastor of souls. He is not among us to shout out slogans or to shut down dialogue. Nor does he come to these shores as a colonizer of ideologies. His mission is not to divide, but to unite. In his messages, spoken in the languages of north and south, he calls all Americans to promote an ecology at the service of the culture of life, to care for all persons at every stage of development, to honor the family rooted in marriage, to defend religious liberty, to protect the vulnerable and marginalized, and to dream of a better future for our humanity.
This is not the pope of the left or the right. Here is Peter bearing the message of the fisher of men from Galilee, inviting all of us to a spirit of hard work and determination that is ready to labor many days for a catch.
Welcome, Holy Father. We await you tomorrow in the city of brotherly love.