Tag Archives: Congress

Blessings from the Balcony to Heal the Heart of a Nation

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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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.

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.

Peter BlessingAnd 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.

Reading the Code: Pope Francis’ Speech to Congress

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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When I teach my students how to interpret the Bible, I often have to emphasize that the Scriptures are written in a coherent literary code, which the reader needs to learn. For example, Egypt is never simply a place but an embodiment of a specific form of evil empire. Mountains are never mountains alone but locales for divine revelation. Since Pope Francis is an able reader of the Scriptures and astute user of rhetoric, it is necessary to read Pope Francis’ speeches as written in this kind of literary code. Although addressed to Congress, Pope Francis was speaking to all Americans, many of whom would pick up on the code of the text (even if Republicans and Democrats alike were too busy applauding when the Pope proclaimed a truth they happened to agree with). In the following piece, I hope to provide some interpretation of this code.

Yesterday’s Homily: Christo-centric Mission

Public papal addresses during apostolic visits are not written solely to provide sound bites. Rather, these speeches and homilies build off one another, presuming in some way that they’d all be eventually read together (and become in some ways part of the Magisterium of the Church). Thus, it is important to note the Christo-centric and mission-oriented content of yesterday’s homily by Pope Francis. In this homily, Pope Francis preaches:

Jesus sends his disciples out to all nations. To every people. We too were part of all those people of two thousand years ago. Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message, his presence. Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity. Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly-dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone. Go out and in my name embrace life as it is, and not as you think it should be. Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living. Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.

Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual. Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven. Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing.

The Church, the holy People of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters. The holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into elites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure, in all the many forms it takes, is the cause of so much apathy.

Here, we read that the Church goes forth into the “dust-laden paths of history” to proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. That the darkness of the world, whether experienced through social injustice or the existential misery that often haunts the human heart, can be illumined through an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, who is the light of life. Thus, the Church’s involvement in history is not a dabbling in the political sphere, a “progressive” re-orientation of the Church’s mission away from salvation (which the unfortunate title of a piece at Crux suggested). Rather, it is in the concrete and historical existence of the world that the Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed. The Pope’s address to politicians in Congress, then, is an extension of the vocation of the Church to proclaim salvation to all human beings. This proclamation is centered in Jesus Christ, even if that name was not spoken in the halls of Congress. For at the heart of the Church’s message of salvation is the unity and peace among human beings in Christ.

The Four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton

PopeinUSGood speakers often employ “typologies” that enable the listener of the speech to remember what is said. At one level, Pope Francis’ use of four Americans, who were concerned about the plight of human dignity are examples of this rhetorical approach. Yet, there is a subtle rhetorical move by Pope Francis in his employment of these four figures. Indeed, any good American would recognize the gifts provided to the country by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. (both of whom are honored in the nation’s Capitol). What is surprising is that Pope Francis includes in this great tradition of Americans concerned about justice Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, who spoke out against the government’s military exploits, yet who also prayed the Divine Office and attended Mass everyday. And Thomas Merton, whose vision of peace and dialogue, is only made possible through his identity as contemplative monk. In both figures, you have fidelity to the Church, a contemplative spirit, and a desire to work toward solidarity among the human family.

In this subtle way, Pope Francis has reminded Congress that openness to God is intimately linked to love of the poor. He does not say the word secularization but as holding up two Catholic figures as “icons” of American concern about dignity, he is offering a subtle argument that people of faith are necessary for the flourishing of the common good. In the speech itself, he goes as far as to say precisely this:

The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

In this way, Pope Francis is taking up the topic of religious liberty without saying the word at all. If Catholics are marginalized because of their annoying habit of believing in the existence of a God who calls us out into concrete practice in the world, then the political sphere will lose a valuable resource for the promotion of human dignity. If Catholics are forced to practice a religious faith that does not lead to the establishment of schools, of hospitals, of those concrete ways that Catholics live out caritas, then it will be the United States itself that will be poorer for it. The subtle implication of Pope Francis’ speech is that you won’t simply be absent a Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day if you eliminate institutional religious life from the public sphere. You should also bid adieu to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln too.

The Interruption of the Unborn

A number of Catholics are disappointed that Pope Francis didn’t more directly take up the issue of abortion. He stated:

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. 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. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

The single line referring to abortion is ultimately intended to be more powerful insofar as it serves as an interruption to the line of thought. Without doubt, many of those in Congress were nodding their heads as Pope Francis reminded the United States of their responsibility to care for the immigrant; they were thinking to themselves of the idiocy (perhaps) of Donald Trump, looking forward to quoting this line to him in some interview soon. Then, the Gospel was proclaimed: the yardstick we use for others will be the one used against us; and this yardstick necessitates the protection of human life, beginning at conception.

Here, Catholics are given a kind of grammar for what constitutes effective evangelization in public life. What does your interlocutor agree with you on? Begin there, and then move toward the source of disagreement. And Catholics can do this, because it’s not just the unborn child, who experiences the injustice of a world that too often has grown cold to love. It is the prisoner condemned to death, it is the immigrant despised and maltreated by fellow human beings, it is the nation-state treated as other, it is the young woman or man who sees their life reduced to their status as income earner. In this way, Pope Francis is proposing a new way forward relative to proclaiming the Gospel of Law in a culture that has grown cold to human flourishing at all stages. He sees, the problems with this culture, as he describes in his address to the bishops:

The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent. No less important is the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.

The way forward is not to condemn those who disagree with you but to invite the other into a dialogue in which the Church proclaims to the world the entire narrative of the Gospel of Life at the heart of her existence. To present the fullness of truth as a source of beauty and good, which may in fact lead to conversions that we never thought possible.


Pope Francis will say a great deal more over the coming days. And each of these speeches will need to be analyzed in a way similar to what I have offered here. Such analysis will require a great deal of care, attentive to the rhetorically sweet speech of Pope Francis. Only with this attention to his speech will the full effect of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States bear fruit.

Follow Timothy P. O’Malley @NDLiturgyCenter