Pope Francis‘pastoral trip in the United States “The need to create a culture of encounter”
By Anno Hellenbroich
Pope Francis used his recent pastoral visit to the United States as an opportunity to remind the American nation, its people and leaders, as well as the world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly, of the political responsibility that they carry for a world which is torn apart by fratricidal wars, mass poverty, migration and the destruction of the family.
In his address to the World government leaders assembled at the UN (New York) in order to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations, Pope Francis spoke about the precious heritage which is enshrined in the Preamble of the UN Charter – a key document in the history of mankind which was agreed upon by world leaders that wanted to put an end to a century of bloody world wars. He pointed to the key principles of the UN Charter according to which each human being is endowed with dignity and inalienable rights. Accordingly the task of society and its political leaders is to foster a society which is based on the principle of the “common good”. In his address to the United States Congress the Pope urged the US political representatives to be “true government leaders”, who rather than being led by selfish and divisive interests, must “care” for the “common good” of society and create harmony among the different social layers as well as equal opportunity for all citizens. Of similar importance was the Pope’s address to the Catholic Bishops of the United States, among them also those who participated at the “Philadelphia World meeting of families.” The central message which his trip conveyed was that the US and the world need a true dialogue of cooperation, a “dialogue of encounter”.
The disease of simplistic reductionism
Exemplary for the Pope’s pastoral effort, was his address to the Joint session of the United States Congress, the first pope to be invited to speak there: The often repeated topic in his address was to call upon the congressmen to really “care for the people”. “A political society endures only when it seeks it as a vocation to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk”, the Pope stated. In a world which is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities committed even in the name of religion he urged the US congressmen to be attentive to “any form of fundamentalism” as well as not to fall into the tendency of “simplistic reductionism, which only sees good or evil or the righteous and the sinners.” The Pope indirectly attacked with this the American disease of simplistic reductionism and the tendency of society to “polarize the world into two camps as well as polarize the inner society.”
He made reference to four outstanding Americans: to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. All four in their different activities left a precious heritage to society: As the Pope stated in his speech: a nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which realizes Martin Luther King’s “dream” of full rights for all men and women. “The march which was led by Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery was part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all.” Another key example for the building of the American a nation and the defense of its civil rights was Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement) who became the symbol for passion of justice and who was dedicated to help the oppressed. Similarly Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk, who was “a promoter of peace between peoples and regions”, a true man of dialogue. These four Americans, as the Pope underlined, sacrificed themselves to build a better world. They were a “voice of fraternity and love” which tried to bring the best in each person and in each society. They built values which will live forever in the spirit of the American people.
Rebuilding the nation: not possessing space but initiating processes
The Pope called for a “spirit of cooperation” by making reference to the preamble of the “Declaration of Independence” which states: “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (4th July 1776).American society, as Francis put it, must be guided by compassion and the golden rule (St Matthew 7:12) namely to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He strongly urged the Congress to abolish the barbarous “death penalty”- a complete contradiction to the sacredness of individual life and the inalienable rights of man.
The “culture of care” which the Pope evoked, by referring to his latest encyclical Laudato Si’, must take an “integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protect nature” (139), while technology must be put “at the service and another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (112). What the US needs are true representatives of the American people: “A good political leader is one who with the interests of all in mind, who seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing space” (Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).
He told the congressmen that the other recurrent message which he wanted to convey during his entire trip was to raise his voice in defense of the family, which is under attack from the side of the gay-, gender- lobby and Malthusians. “Relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and above all, the richness and beauty of family life. (…) The same goes for the care of the young among whom so many are disoriented and aimless, trapped into a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair…” We live in a culture, the Pope warned, “which pressures young people not to start a family because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture also presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”
Children are our future – Grandparents our memory
During a prayer vigil for the festival of families he further elaborated his main theme, the subject of the family. A society grows in beauty and in truth, “when it rises on the foundation of the family”, the Pope said and the most beautiful which God created was “the family”. Creating man and woman he entrusted the world to them: “Grow, multiply, cultivate the earth, make it bear fruit, let it grow.” To have a family today and raise children is “hard work”, the Pope said, and in the family there is fighting sometimes. The husband argues with his wife; they get upset with each other, or children get upset with their parents. But children and young people are the future; they are our strength; they are what keeps us moving forward. They are the ones in whom we put our hope, while grandparents are a family’s memory. “They are the ones who gave us the faith; they passed the faith onto us.” And if a people is incapable of caring for children and caring for the elderly, it is a people without a future, because it lacks the strength and the memory needed to move forward.
The Pope in a special address to the US bishops participating in the Philadelphia meeting used this occasion to reflect from a different point of view about the importance of the family. He used this to critically examine American contemporary culture: Today’s culture, as he observed, seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust. “The most important thing nowadays seems to be following the latest trend of activity… and ‘consumption’ seems to determine what is important. Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming (…) Whatever the cost or consequences. A consumption which does not favor bonding, a consumption which has little to do with human relationships”. Social bonds are a mere ‘means’ for the satisfaction of ‘my needs’. The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality.” At the root of such cultural crisis is, according to the Pope, “an impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness. Running after the lasts fad, accumulating ‘friends’…Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.”
Flee the temptation of narcissism
The pope thanked the US bishops for their commitment to help “integrate the immigrants”, their engagement in the field of education as well as for their commitment to the “cause of life and of the family”. He reminded them of their responsibility to be true shepherds and lift people up. At the same time he urged the bishops to “flee the temptation of narcissism” and not to be mere “administrators”, which represents a false power of strength. However the most important advise he gave them was that bishops should not be “divisive”, not be caught in “polarizing” society. They are the promoters of “the dialogue of encounter”, hence the task is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your parishes, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families dialogue with society. He strongly urges the bishops to create harmony and unity: “harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart.”
The rule of law
With his visit to the United Nations, the Pope honored the great achievements given to the world by the UN, as three of his predecessor- among them Pope Paul VI- had emphasized before. Among the main UN achievements were, according to Pope Francis, the “codification and development of international law, the establishments of international norms regarding human rights, advances in humanitarian law, the resolution of numerous conflicts, operations of peace- keeping and reconciliation and any number of other accomplishments in every area of international activity and endeavor. All these achievements are lights which help to dispel darkness of the disorder caused by unrestrained ambitions and collective forms of selfishness.”
He called upon the world government leaders to do everything possible to ensure that all people of the world can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family which is the primary cell of any social development. “Adequate development for all means material and spiritual goods- adequate housing, dignified employment, food and drinking water, religious freedom and education for all these being pillars of integral human development having a common foundation which is the right to life and the right to existence of human nature itself.”
In light of the actual multiple crisis in the Mideast, Africa, Ukraine and Syria, the Pope urged, that the world leaders must do everything possible to “ensure the rule of law”: i.e. chose the path of negotiation, mediation and arbitration, which follows the principle of the UN Charter that “constitutes a truly fundamental juridical norm.” The global crisis demands a special quality of leadership. Not an “all powerful elite that follows its own selfish interest”, as the Pope stated, but an understanding of statecraft which calls for a higher degree of wisdom and which recognizes that the full meaning of the individual and collective life is found in the “selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”