Four Great Americans
and the Call to Holiness
By Joan Lamar (Jan 16, 2017)
Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Day. Thomas Merton.
Liberty. Equal rights. Care for the oppressed. Fostering dialogue.
Pope Francis spotlighted these four Americans and these four virtues in his historic address to Congress during his visit to the United States in September 2015. Why these particular individuals?
First, let's look at the context. The first pope ever to speak before a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis was surely aware of the enormity of his task and the weight his words could carry. He was also aware of who he was speaking to. Congress is a secular body, representative of a pluralist American society. And while it is a body concerned with the business and politics of the world, it was nonetheless founded on transcendent principles — namely, the dignity and rights of the person.
At the outset of his address, Pope Francis recalled the figure of Moses who was also a lawgiver and who was also chosen to lead and protect a people. "Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face," the Holy Father said.
Pope Francis then asked the elected officials before him to closely consider the people they serve. He mentioned working families striving "to build a better life" and who "in their own quiet way sustain the life of society." He mentioned the elderly, "who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights." He mentioned young people, "working to realize their great and noble aspirations."
Having drawn this composite of the American people under their governance, the Holy Father then evoked the memory of Lincoln, Day, Merton, and King, who were able "to shape fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people." Their causes remain as vital today as ever and "offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality," he said.
Pope Francis spoke of Lincoln's unremitting work for a "new birth" in this country, built upon "love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity." In a world that has increasingly become "a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion," Pope Francis warned against the temptation of "simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps."
Rather than turning from these wounds, the Holy Father said we are called to tend to them and offer people hope and healing — in short, to be Christ in the world, as messy as this world is.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
He moved on to the figure of Martin Luther King, who continued Lincoln's quest and fought tirelessly for full civil rights for African Americans. He related King's dream to that of our freedom-seeking forebears who immigrated here for a better life. King's dream and the dream of our ancestors run parallel to those of the millions of refugees and migrants fleeing violence, oppression, and poverty in parts of the Middle East and Central and South America.
Against the backdrop of rancorous political debate in the U.S. over immigration policy, the Holy Father said, "We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal."
As for Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Pope Francis shared how her work with the poor and her passion for justice for the oppressed were grounded in a deep faith that she tried to live out in imitation of the saints.
Pope Francis said so many people today remain "trapped in poverty," and we, too, are called to respond by carrying out works of mercy to our brothers and sisters.
Finally, Pope Francis spoke of Merton, the Trappist monk and contemplative. Merton, he said, "opened up new horizons for souls and for the Church" as he dialogued with people from other faiths.
"Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time," Francis said. "He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions." Francis said that a good political leader is one who strives for the same.
Pope Francis then steered his address to the topic of family. Indeed, the initial reason for his U.S. trip was to attend the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The family, he said, "is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without." He alluded to the high divorce rate, a rising trend of unwed couples living together, the redefinition of marriage itself, and the effects of family brokenness on many youth who "seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems."
Indeed, broken families lead to a broken society. So what should our response be to the crisis of the family? What guidance can we glean from Lincoln, Day, Merton, and King — and Pope Francis, himself?
Sacrificial love is what's most necessary in family life. It's what's most necessary in the world. If we carry out the noble task of loving our spouses, our children, our elderly parents, our neighbors, and our enemies — even when it's hard, even under the cross — we will be lights in the world and will begin to build God's Kingdom on earth. That is greatness. That is holiness. And, in our own quiet way, we will carry on the work of the four great Americans of whom Pope Francis spoke.
To quote Francis' final remarks to Congress, "God bless America!"