Pope Francis’s powerful address to a joint meeting of Congress used Americans and our own history to show the universal teachings and tenets of the church. There were many memorable parts of the pontiff’s oration that are worthy of reverence. His singling out of Dr. Martin Luther King and the March on Selma as television cameras fixed their gaze on Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement, was especially poignant.
Yet it was the Holy Father’s oration on family that I found most compelling. Not for what he said, but for what he didn’t say. That the pope extolled the virtues of the family is not surprising. Creating families and holding them together while honoring and respecting what they do for society is traditional Catholic fare. It would have been more shocking had Francis not talked about the family. But it was the way he did it that struck me most.
I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental 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 the beauty of family life.
In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.
Yes, he alludes to the marriage-equality debate still roiling the nation three months after the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry. No doubt Francis believes marriage is a union of one man and one woman. His not saying so explicitly, I believe, is in keeping with the “Who am I to judge?” openness on homosexuality that made him a star with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And by not rigidly defining family, but focusing on “the richness and the beauty of family life,” the pope made it possible for same-sex families to see themselves and their faith as one rather than two distinct entities in conflict.
What all families got from Pope Francis today was support for their sacred mission. To further values. To strengthen communities. To foster kinship and mutual responsibility. Rather than hearing the Holy Father thunder condemnation against same-sex families, all families heard the leader of the Catholic Church once again saying, “All are welcome.”
“A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism,” Francis told the joint session of Congress. “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.” With those words, with that speech and with the actions that have animated his papacy, Francis is practicing what he preaches.
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