When an American President invites someone to the White House, or even says his name in a public address, more than style points are at stake.
We can argue about his legacy, but someone who understood this well and used it to good effect was President George W. Bush, who made it his purpose to continually draw attention to the plight of prisoners of conscience and victims of human rights abuses wherever he went.
Bush was greatly influenced in this commitment by his friendship with the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in “Permanent Labor Camp 35” for challenging Soviet policies.
In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, Sharansky movingly describes how ecstatic he was when his Soviet guard allowed him to read a Pravda item denouncing the cowboy President Reagan for describing the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Sharansky was supposed to be shocked at Reagan’s recklessness, but instead he was overjoyed and rushed to tap out the news to his fellow prisoners in code. “We dissidents were ecstatic,” Sharansky reports, “Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”
Truth has a power of its own, Sharansky argues, and for the persecuted, simply to hear it spoken and know they are “seen” can be immensely strengthening.
This is why when Bush traveled to China in 2005, he was hardly off the plane before he went to a Protestant Church to speak up for people of faith who had been victims of a recent government crackdown on underground churches. The Washington Post reported at the time:
“My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly,” the president told reporters outside Gangwashi Church, a modest brick building and one of a handful of official Protestant churches in Beijing. “A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths.”
The President didn’t scruple to say this to the Chinese President’s face, either. The same story reports that in a joint statement with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao, Bush said: “It’s important that social, political and religious freedoms grow in China and we encourage China to continue making their historic transition to greater freedom.”
To hearten Cuban dissidents, in 2007 Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Dr. Oscar Biscet, who was rotting helpless in a Cuban prison at the time. Bush also attended a conference on prisoners of conscience in Prague that year.
He and Mrs. Bush met with Burmese dissidents in 2008. After the Afghan elections in 2004, where women not only voted but took seats in Parliament for the first time, President Bush sent the First Lady back to Afghanistan repeatedly to keep shining the light of the Press on the plight of Afghan women. One could cite other examples.
The Cuban government has shown during Pope Francis’ visit there in the past two days that it understands what meeting with dissidents means. The Vatican ambassador to Cuba personally called several prominent Cuban dissidents to invite them to papal events. No formal meeting was planned, but the Pope was meant to greet them publically. They were arrested en route instead. One protester did get through, and had an animated conversation with the Pope before being dragged off by security guards.
The pope himself has been polite in Cuba (some are disappointed he did not say more in defense of dissidents), but in his own way pointed. At the official welcoming ceremony, the Pope exchanged niceties with Raul Castro, but then said he “would like my greeting to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet.” Later he broke from his prepared text to look directly at President Raul Castro and say firmly to him, “The world needs reconciliation.” His addresses challenged Cubans to serve each other, not ideology, and to be “willing to change.”
His gift to Fidel Castro was a CD of homilies and songs from one of Fidel’s old Jesuit teachers – a man who died in exile, and who dreamed to his dying day of hearing Fidel’s confession. Catholic News Agency reports that Fr. Armando Llorante, SJ imagined how his reunion with his old pupil would go: first they’d give each other a big hug and reminisce about their youthful adventures. Then he’d say, “Fidel, the moment of truth has arrived,” and try to get him to go to confession –after he’d publicly asked forgiveness, the priest added, “because his sins were not only personal.”
I’ve been thinking about dissidents in the wake of the news that the Obama administration has invited a Who’s Who of Catholic dissenters to greet Pope Francis at the White House on Wednesday.
As to how Catholics ought to react to the White House guest list, I’m with Elizabeth Scalia. We’re Christians, and St. Paul’s admonition that “love is patient, love is kind…love does not take into account wrongs suffered” was made for moments when your cultural opposition pokes you in the eye. Moreover, it would be nice as Scalia suggests if when the political Left baits a hook to gin up some outrage, faithful Christians would for once not bite.
It’s not even certain the White House staff intends to give offense. They may just have called the only religious people they know. These are after all the folks who tried to give a “reset” button to Russia, but couldn’t manage to look up the right word; who gave a legally blind man a set of DVDs as a state gift; who sent the Dalai Lama out the back door of the White House and into a mound of trash. Think what you will of the President’s policies, his protocol people are no geniuses.
Assuming the White House understands perfectly what it’s doing, however, its little poke at Pope Francis will find its response a few days later when the Pope spends two days at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
Although most commentators seem to have forgotten it as they speculate on what the Pope might say to Congress or to the UN, those visits were added to the Pope’s itinerary only after the fact.
The main event in the Pope’s mind, what drew him to the U.S. in the first place, was his desire to meet with thousands of families who, dissenting from the zeitgeist, strive to live the fullness of Catholic teaching on marriage and family. They do this in part to obey Christ’s admonishment, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” They also do it because they are the generation on the brunt end of the sexual revolution. They bear in their spirits and their bodies the heartbreaking wounds of abortion, divorce, absent fathers and sex without meaning and have chosen the path of love that heals.
The Pope is coming to strengthen and encourage those people, to “see” them, and to speak to them a word of truth about the importance of who they are and what they contribute in the midst of a culture that would silence, shame and mock them. He will speak truth that “burns in the heart,” as Natan Sharansky might say. And that will be his answer to a less than respectful White House welcome.
*US President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis, Thursday, March 27, 2014 at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)