The remarkable Pope Francis, on his first trip to the U.S. this week, is giving 18 speeches. I hope he also has time to listen to Americans and their needs.
Listening to his moving speech today before Congress, I can see that he knows what notes to strike, what tone to take in dealing, as only he can, with major issues that go beyond partisan politics.
I was almost as nervous, proud, and excited as Joe Biden, the VP, and Speaker John Boehner, who wept: a Catholic leader universally regarded as a wise prophet who doesn't shout to be heard, who speaks courageously, from the heart, saying tough things in soft tones. His halting English became more confident and lively as he proceeded, and the audience sat in rapt attention to every word. Quite a contrast to the anti-Catholic attitudes of past times in this country.
The greatest surprise of the speech was his inclusion of two of my favorite people from recent American Catholicism: two radical converts, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, both viewed with some alarm by bishops in the 1960s for their peace activities and their preference for social justice as the way to live out the Gospel message.
I have written a good bit about Merton and have given talks on Day and her Catholic Worker Movement (once considered a socialist-Communist operation) and so was thrilled to hear these two Americans singled out and honored in one of the major speeches in recent memory.
"My duty is to build bridges," Francis said today, putting Merton and Day in the company of Lincoln and M. L. King as four heroic Americans concerned as the pope is with the common good, rejecting by implication the selfishness of ordinary political life and celebrity culture. This is a pontiff who lives up to what that title implies: bridge builder. Merton and Day also built bridges of action and prayer that live on.
I have often been dismayed that many people are unaware of Day and Merton. Now they will have a chance to learn, thanks to Pope Francis, the pontiff who does not pontificate.