It’s been a little over a week since Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas, departed our land. The energy and dynamism of his visit still lingers. It was more than just spectacle. Undoubtedly it was rousing for more than 70 million Catholics in America to have their spiritual leader grace the nation, but it was apparent his visit touched many more. Like many non-Catholics here and elsewhere around the globe, I see in this pontiff an authenticity and a beauty of spirit that is increasingly rare. His religion is brimming with life, with sincerity, with purpose.
Living here in the deep South, in what’s known as the “Bible Belt,” the only religion we’re mostly confronted with is one in which God is only concerned about abortion and homosexuality. Our religious and political leaders are good at zealously letting us know what God is against, but not as passionate about telling us what, or who, God is for. Pope Francis stands as a stark contrast.
There is a consistency to the pontiff’s message, which is that life, all life, is valuable — poor or rich, black or white, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat. Pope Francis communicates that the unseen, the forgotten, the homeless, even the felon, are special to God and that he sees and cares for each one. I believe it is the consistency of this message that has ignited hearts all over the world. It’s a message embodied in a man who possesses a compelling and motivating authenticity.
This was on great display when, for the first time in our nation’s history, a presiding pope addressed a joint session of Congress. His words were powerful.
“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility,” he observed. “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country to grow as a nation. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.”
Quite profoundly he also noted, “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
It was a message the elected leaders in Alabama desperately need to hear and heed.
What can serve as a remedy for political dysfunction? What can serve as a motivator for our state leaders to adequately fund services and programs that leave the vulnerable in our state less vulnerable? It’s found in what Pope Francis said to our members of Congress: “Legislative activity [that] is ALWAYS based on care for the people.” Legislative activity that has at its very core a consistent care and concern for life — all life.
Does the pope care about the unborn? Without a doubt. Does he believe in the traditional view of marriage? Certainly. But these beliefs don’t trap him in a myopic, narrow-minded religious worldview cutting off concern and empathy for non-believers.
Legislative activity in Alabama is too often undermining of the common good, and in no way seeks to “satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of ALL its members.” It’s why on the one hand we can be preparing to defund Planned Parenthood health clinics in the state because of alleged abortion practices, yet want to speed up the ability to extinguish the life of certain felons.
It’s why with even having some of the highest obesity, diabetes, cancer, stillbirth and other health issue rates in the country, we minimally fund Medicaid and other health-related programs and resist any attempts to expand Medicaid to help the medically vulnerable. It’s why there’s been a consistent elimination of mental health services, while local communities are forced to bear the burdens and costs of dealing with the mentally ill.
It’s why funding for state services such as driver’s license bureau access for the rural poor and environmental regulation enforcement can be so readily slashed. Legislative activity based on prioritizing the common good is not a consistent attribute of our state government.
In a state where there are a lot of theatrics and grandstanding when it comes to religion and public policy, there is very little transformative action. Compared with the pope’s Christianity, Evangelicalism — with its primacy on the salvation of the soul — oddly comes across as a soulless religion, lacking any heart or compassion. To many, it has become the opposite of the life and message of Jesus. Here is where the pope’s example becomes so instructive. In a refreshing way, Pope Francis has reminded us what the message of Christ, true Christianity, is all about.
As our leaders so often use biblical accounts and maxims of the Old Testament to undergird their stance on various policy issues, I often reflect on the role and message of the Old Testament prophets. In their calling to declare “Thus saith the Lord,” many of their admonitions and warnings were often directed at the leaders of Israel. It seems God constantly had to remind those in power he was concerned about their treatment of the poor, of the orphans, of the widows, of the strangers, of the vulnerable in their midst.
From the major to the minor prophets, it’s a consistent theme. Like the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, that message seems to have been lost and overlooked today. Thank you, Pope Francis, for reinvigorating this message in such a consistent fashion. Now let us hope our leaders have the “eyes to see and ears to hear.”