Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement
I would like to reflect on Pope Francis’s historic speech to Congress from the outside-in; i.e., beginning from the blessing he offered from the Speaker’s balcony back to the form of healing he promoted within congressional chambers. While outside facing the people, Francis united his petition to God with a request of the people:
Father of all, bless these. Bless each of them. Bless the families. Bless them all. And I ask you all please to pray for me. And if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you to please send good wishes my way.
There are at least two movements to this one united act of prayer. In the first movement, Francis offers in prayer to the Father the wellbeing of all those gathered before him. In doing so, he claims all of us as his brothers and sisters, children of the one God. The second movement is to ask all of us to pray for him—i.e., to take upon ourselves what he seeks to do for us: put ourselves at the service of the good of others, including himself.
In this two-part action, Francis exemplified what he recommended in the latter pages of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: trusting in intercessory prayer. He singles out that form of prayer as especially conducive to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ because in it we practice moving outside ourselves to make room in our hearts for one another:
One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession. Let us peer for a moment into the heart of St. Paul, to see what his prayer was like. It was full of people: “I constantly pray with you in every one of my prayers for all of you… because I hold you in my heart” (Phil 1:4, 7). Here we see that intercessory prayer does not divert us from true contemplation, since authentic contemplation always has a place for others. This attitude becomes a prayer of gratitude to God for others. […] Far from being suspicious, negative and despairing, it is a spiritual gaze born of deep faith which acknowledges what God is doing in the lives of others (Evangelii Gaudium, §281-282).
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis speaks of intercessory prayer as a necessary form of prayer for the evangelizer, whose mission is to seek the good of others in all she does as she spreads the Good News. In his blessing from the Speaker’s Balcony, he showed us the other side of this prayer’s power: that wishing for the good of others is itself a way of beginning to pray.
With the humble respectfulness that we have come to know as characteristic of Francis, he made room for those who do not or cannot pray, and what he asked from them is simply that they wish him well. It is a simple request—low-stakes and non-threatening. Moreover, it is not a trick. He asked all of us to be a little more human in wishing each other well, humbling himself to receive whatever form of blessing each of us is able to bestow upon him. Even for those who do not believe in God and who do not pray, he invited us to act as brothers and sisters in making room in ourselves for the cares and good of others. This act of generosity and of challenge is reminiscent of the remarkable sign of respect and affection he showed in 2013 at the end of his first press briefing, when he invited the members of the press into a moment of silent reflection out of respect for the consciences of those who are not Catholic or do not believe in God, “knowing that each one of you is a child of God.” In short, for those of us who do not call upon the one Father of us all, Francis asks that we act as though we were children in the same family.
Looking back upon the speech to Congress from the blessing on the Speaker’s Balcony allows us to appreciate how he was proposing this same dynamic to our elected representatives. He called upon the representatives of the American People to practice seeing each other as brothers and sisters. Consider this section of his speech:
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 [of good vs. evil, righteous vs. sinners]. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject. […] We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.
It seems to me that Francis is saying that we, as a People, reject tyrannical forces that seek to replace the good of the many with the self-interests of the few and the powerful. Forces that neglect the common good are dehumanizing. But in our opposition to these forces of dehumanization, we must not seek to dehumanize those who disagree with us, or even those who directly oppose us. Should we give in to this reactionary form of violence, then we imitate that which we reject. Instead, we must practice caring even for those who disagree with and oppose us, seeking their good along with our own. In like fashion, this posture of strength in humility must begin with exercising care and concern for one another, accepting even those who disagree with and oppose us within the household of our own nation as our brothers and sisters. In other words, he is instructing the members of Congress to break from their pathological suspicion of and enmity for those across the aisle, inciting them instead to practice mutual concern. If they can do nothing else, start by sending good wishes.
Perhaps this is idealistic, but even so it is the form of true governance. Francis asks for nothing less than for the hearts of those in Congress to be filled with the cares and the good of the People they represent. To do this, they must also accept the cares and recognize the good of those who disagree with and oppose them from within their own governing body. In his words of counsel:
Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its good, its interests, its social life. […] In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.
As the Pontifex Maximus – the great bridge builder – Francis understands his vocation to be one of bringing back together those who are separated from each other. What separates political leaders from one another, their constituents, and the common good is their own desire to occupy space, to retain power, to protect their own interests or the interests of small groups with special influence. Referring directly to Evangelii Gaudium, Francis remarked that, “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.” In other words, the urge to take space for oneself is a sign of illness, so the medicine is to practice giving the space of your position and power over to the cares and good of others.
This trust in the healing influence of intercessory prayer, which might seem like weakness in the halls of power, symbolizes the movement of Francis’s entire Pontificate. On the night he was elected, he stepped on to the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s square and performed the same action he performed from the balcony overlooking Capitol Hill: he offered blessing and asked for blessing.
And now I would like to give the blessing. But first I want to ask you a favor. Before the Bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me—the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer—your prayer for me—in silence. […] I will now give my blessing to you and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will.
To the whole world, to the American People, and to the members of Congress, Francis’s action is his message and his message is the same: Sacrifice your own self-interest by making room for the cares and good of others. This is the movement of the Blessed Mother, whom he calls “Star of the New Evangelization” (EG §288), the one who made room within herself. It is also the movement of the greatest of all evangelizers, St. Paul, whose prayer was “full of people”. For those of us who cannot pray as they did, Francis asks us to begin with sending good wishes. If we can learn to do that, then we are already beginning to move within the “Joy of the Gospel”.
Read more from Leonard @leodelo2.