Since March 2013, when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires became Pope Francis of the Universe, I’ve written about him at least 20 times. My first words, just a few hours after he’d been selected by his fellow churchmen in Rome, spoke of “a gentle warrior” who married the twin characteristics of the Jesuit soldier of Christ to the peaceful caretaker of all creatures great and small, whose name he’d adopted as a symbol of his mission. At that point, I had no idea how prophetic my words would be.
Francis has turned out to be a true warrior in his own fashion, sui generis, one of a kind. He has led his own stylistic revolution, maintaining the substance of a message two millennia in the making but wrapping it in cloth so dramatically different from his predecessor that some of us were tricked into believing he’d taken a detour from the established path to salvation.
I’m not afraid to say I’ve been one of them. As recently as last week in another publication, I suggested that this pope does not speak to me, even though the editors who put that incendiary title to my column missed the nuance of my intention. It is not that I’m deaf to his message. It is that I have to listen very closely to hear in it the comforting music played in my ears and heart since the moment I was christened with sanctified water and received under the arc of Heaven.
The final straw for me was the idea that women who’d had abortions were no longer automatically excommunicated, something that was announced earlier this month and which clashed dramatically with my understanding of abortion as the greatest sin, the bloodiest wound on the face of humanity. As other, better Catholics pointed out to me, this was consistent with a pattern of forgiveness that has existed since the prodigal son wandered off with the little black sheep. Still, the way the media were playing this up, it angered me to think that we were somehow backtracking on abortion.
You can understand my concern. The pope had spent the summer talking about the sinful aspects of climate change, and exhorting us to be caretakers of the world’s resources. I’m not a climate change denier — far from it — but the state of the spotted owl didn’t trouble me as much as the life of a child.
But as I watched Francis deliver his address to Congress yesterday, something came over me. Call it the Holy Spirit, call it common sense, call it humility (OK, maybe not that). Let’s just say that I finally saw the true nature of this man, and did it quite ironically through a film of tears. In a heavily accented, halting and gentle voice, Pope Francis quelled my fears about his “radically different” approach to my mother church and its lessons.
The running theme throughout the historic speech, one that truly honors the word “historic” and shames the rest of us for even thinking that Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer deserved the airplay it got, was this simple truth:
“We must protect life at every stage of development.” I cried when I heard those words. I wasn’t the only one in tears, by the way. As the cameras scanned the audience, I saw Marco Rubio wipe his eyes, watched Joe Biden look toward heaven and his beloved Beau in a personal moment (seeing him, perhaps?) was profoundly moved at the sight of John Lewis’ trembling lips. Those who either hate the church, or religion, or who are too hip to be touched by this type of transcendent moment might brush it off as a revival show, one that makes for “must-see TV” but that will ultimately have no impact on the nameless and the faceless in their communities.
I beg to differ. Pope Francis spoke of all the things that make us angry, make us shout, make us worry and make us doubt. He talked about the abolition of the death penalty, which was a pointed jab at U.S. policy since we are one of the few civilized countries that still have it on the books. He tested me there, because I support it as a right and a duty of society, but I’m willing to foreswear my support for it if we do what the pope most eloquently, implicitly suggested: abolish the war crime of abortion.
I call it a “war crime,” because it is a tool of the true “war against women,” making our wombs the battle ground for some political and philosophical cause celebre. Instead of supporting pregnant mothers, instead of promoting adoption, we blithely cast the murder of unborn children as a convenient and feasible “choice.” This pope made no secret that we must protect life “at every stage.”
He also acknowledged that we Americans “are not fearful of foreigners because most of us were once foreigners,” and rejoiced with us that “for many, America continues to be a land of dreams.”
Yes, this pope went there. In a time when Donald Trump has seized the spotlight, and our throats, with his xenophobic rants, in a society where we still talk about building that mythical and impractical and inhuman wall against the world, Francis invited us to remember that what we should do unto others what we would have done unto us. He wasn’t saying that we should stand at the borders with visas and a job for all comers, drug runners included. He was simply reminding us that the immigrant experience helped create the dream that we hold as our birthright.
And he honored us by citing our great historic figures, creating what Chris Matthews quite eloquently (who would have thought it?) called a Mount Rushmore of Spirituality. He spoke of Lincoln’s freedom, of Martin Luther King’s quest for inclusion, of Dorothy Day’s service and of Thomas Merton’s redemption. He brought us the best of ourselves, in the chamber that often sees the shards and shreds of our worst.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.