Looking back over Pope Francis’ recent three-city U.S. visit, packed with a whopping 24 official events along with the many unofficial encounters, it is difficult to summarize the “takeaway” in just a few points.
For most Americans, what characterized Francis’ trip more than anything else was his person-to-person contact with the millions that came out to see him. Yet Francis did bring with him a series of messages to the Church in America. Here are five of the key points:
1. The Pope calls religious liberty “one of America’s most precious possessions.” If any one point can be called the hallmark of the Pope’s trip, it would be the question of religious liberty. Francis beat the drum of religious freedom from the moment he opened his mouth in Washington until the moment he landed in Rome. He encouraged Americans to be vigilant “to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
He also met with the Little Sisters of the Poor to show his support for the nuns who have been engaged in a major legal battle against the Obama administration’s HHS contraception mandate. He also underscored the essential distinction between true religious freedom and a watered down “freedom of worship,” which would take religion out of public life and confine it within church walls.
2. The Pope asserts the sacredness of all human life. The Holy Father threw his weight behind the pro-life cause, asserting on various occasions the inviolability of human life in all stages of development. Pope Francis told a joint session of the U.S. Congress that the Golden Rule is a “yardstick” that “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
Doubling down on the life issue, he appealed to the natural moral law before the United Nations General Assembly to assert the sacredness of every human life, including that of the unborn. He called for “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” The Pope carried this pro-life ethic over into the area of capital punishment, advocating its abolishment.
3. He meets with sexual abuse victims. Following the meeting, Francis promised “zealous vigilance” to protect minors and to bring to justice those responsible for this crime. “Etched into my heart are the stories, the suffering and the pain of the young people sexually abused by priests,” he said. “I am overwhelmed with shame thinking that those who in their charge, the tender care of these little ones, violated this trust, causing them grave harm.”
A noteworthy aspect of the Pope’s meeting with abuse victims was the inclusion of several people abused by family members and other acquaintances. The message that sexual abuse isn’t a problem limited to Catholic clergy was an important one to drive home.
4. Francis canonizes Junípero Serra, urging all Christians to be missionaries. In the first canonization ceremony ever to take place on American soil, Pope Francis lifted Serra to sainthood and held up the missionary as a model for all Christians. “Go out to the highways and byways,” Francis said. “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.”
5. The Pope praises the free market. In a remarkable role reversal, Francis took advantage of his historic address to Congress to lecture politicians on the importance of wealth creation for lifting the poor out of poverty. He held up hard-working members of the middle class as an example to all, while praising the free market system. It is “the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work” who sustain the life of society.
But his most striking words came when speaking about the ability of the free market to lift people out of poverty. A key element in fighting poverty is “the creation and distribution of wealth,” as well as “harnessing the spirit of enterprise. … Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”
There were, of course, many other extraordinary moments during the visit, but these alone offer much to ponder. One way or another, Pope Francis changed both Americans and the Pope himself.
His message, the authentic piety in his liturgical celebrations, his Christ-like love for the poor and disadvantaged had to soften all but the hardest of hearts. And the American spirit of religiosity, charity, generosity and industriousness obviously left an indelible mark on Francis as well.
THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, Ph.D., is a permanent research fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and the author of 15 books, including “The World As It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation” (Crossroad, 2011).