Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton: These were the four Americans Pope Francis picked to talk about at his speech to Congress on Thursday. John Allen Jr. at Crux called them “the fantastic four”: Out of all the figures in history whom he admires, Francis “chose Americans, which was a way of saying that he realizes he doesn’t just have something to teach the United States—he, and the rest of the world, can learn from it as well.”
The first two names are probably familiar to most Americans, but Day’s and Merton’s might not be. Both were Catholic converts who lived messy lives before turning to the Church, and even after: Day went through an abortion and several love affairs, while Merton fathered an illegitimate child and later had an apparently non-consummated affair with a nursing student after he had taken vows as a Trappist monk. In the eyes of the Church, these were sinners, but they were also advocates. In 1933, Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a non-violent organization dedicated to the homeless and working poor, and she edited a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, for roughly five decades. Merton, who lived a contemplative life in the Abbey of Gethsemani for the latter part of his life, wrote frequently about non-violence and civil rights in the mid-20th century.
The pope spoke about these two advocates for justice and those on the margins, and then he went to have lunch with the homeless—instead of dining with diplomats, he went to be with “the least of these.”
During Francis’s visit thus far, most of the attention has gone to the big-ticket speeches—to Congress, to the White House, to his Friday address to the United Nations. And Francis is a clever translator. When addressing these elite crowds, he has consistently spoken about those who are in extreme poverty and those who are suffering. Indeed, these speeches may have the greatest measurable effect: When Francis speaks before the United Nations, for example, he will be setting the stage for the upcoming climate-change conference in Paris.
Still, the contrast between the neatly coiffured, impeccably clad members of Congress and the homeless men and women Francis later met was striking. Francis praised two Catholic heroes—at least one of whom is on the way to sainthood—who walked among the “least of these.” Though they may care about poverty, the elites of Washington, D.C., and New York City live in a rarified stratosphere, filled with catered breakfasts and stately furniture and monied peers. Francis often speaks of a culture of encounter: “Persons always live in relationship. We come from others, we belong to others, and our lives are enlarged by our encounter with others,” as he wrote in a co-authored encyclical, Lumen Fidei. The expectation of this speech was not that, though; it was a message directed to the powerful, in the hope that they might use their power for good.
There’s been a lot of talk during this trip about whether Pope Francis is a liberal or a conservative or neither; about whether he’s a radical or simply continuing the work that his predecessors began. Another tangly question might be: Is Pope Francis speaking to elites in the expectation that they will change their personal lives, that they too might see the greatest possibility for helping others in living among them?
In his encyclical Laudato Si, Francis spoke out against exactly the kind of elites who inhabit official Washington:
Many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.
Yet even though one can imagine the political changes that really could happen in response to Francis, it’s very difficult to imagine the glittering precincts of wealthy Washington crumbling, or any senator or representative taking up a life that’s not in “the comfortable position of … a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.” Democrats may be eager to claim his endorsement on issues like poverty and climate change, but his message goes deeper than politics: His is a call to the Christian worldview, one which is radically misaligned with the values of Washington.
“We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person,” Francis said at Saint Patrick in the City after addressing Congress. “He wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help, his love. He identified with all those who suffer, who weep, who suffer any kind of injustice. He tells us this clearly: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” It is a call to reach the poor through personal encounter, rather than bureaucratic systems and political grandstanding. And that may be the most radical—and unattainable—expectation the pope could have of the United States.