As I sat in the gallery watching Pope Francis deliver his historic address to Congress, I believed this could be a transformative moment for our nation’s legislators, one that provides a clear call to action for the common good.
Unlike some, I don’t see official Washington as a soulless place. Many here are hungry for something better than the politics we have now. One reason Pope Francis’s visit resonated so deeply was that he repeatedly called us to our better selves. He believed all of us—including our political leaders—could heal the “open wounds” that surround us, and that gave many of us hope.
One of my favorite passages from Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, reads: “Our goal is … to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”
As he also said to the prisoners he met in Philadelphia: “Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.”
Just prior to the pope’s visit, I led our fourth annual “Nuns on the Bus” trip. Our goal was to meet with people in communities from St. Louis to Washington, and gather stories of their suffering and their work for the common good. We are now sharing these stories with our elected officials, and an iPad of the collection was also given to Pope Francis during his visit.
Today, in contrast to the pope’s vision of justice, we see a disconnected Congress mired in hyper-partisanship, so removed from the lives of people like those we met on our tour that some legislators actually consider shutting down the government a useful strategy. Never mind how many people would be harmed by a loss of services and pay, or the pope’s calling on Congress “to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.”
Rather than scolding Congress for its shortcomings, however, Pope Francis chose to raise up four Americans as representative of who we really are. Everyone could readily identify Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, but many of us were deeply touched when he included the lesser-known Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
An ardent pacifist, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement that continues to feed and shelter people in poverty. Thomas Merton sought to bring people together, promoting peace and dialogue so we could truly become one united family. Both led controversial lives and represent the “bruised, hurting and dirty” church that Pope Francis seeks, “rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (Joy of the Gospel 43).
With some urgency, Pope Francis has called all of us—especially our lawmakers and key economic players—to create an economy of inclusion, one in which all can thrive and no one is shut out. He once wrote that “growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” (Joy of the Gospel 204).
Even though the pope didn’t mention them explicitly, there are actions Congress can take right now to help fulfill his vision. Legislators should raise the minimum wage and make permanent key improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit that are set to expire in 2017, while expanding the EITC to include younger childless workers and noncustodial parents who are presently taxed into poverty. Congress can also make sure that all people have access to healthcare by strengthening rather than attacking the Affordable Care Act, and encouraging all states to expand Medicaid coverage. As the pope told Congress, “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded’….”
The son of immigrants, Pope Francis often reminds us that immigrants deserve to be treated justly and with compassion. “The rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” he said last week. “…When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
When I think about our nation’s current broken immigration system, I think about Katherine, a 15-year-old we met in Kansas City during our bus tour. When her parents went to pay a traffic ticket, they were deported. She and her five siblings moved in with their grandmother, a major financial burden on the family. Most heartbreaking was when Katherine’s 11-year-old sister attempted suicide because she thought one less child would help makes things “better” for her distraught grandmother.
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With that kind of suffering so prevalent among so many people who are trying to build a better life for their families, there is no excuse for congressional failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. They must do so now.
Finally, we all know that racism is at the core of many of our problems. When I think about the crisis of systemic racism, I think about the pain of African American mothers whom I met in Saint Louis during a conversation with “Mother 2 Mother.” This discussion group meets regularly to talk about the differences between raising black and white children in the U.S. One woman spoke about the horror of seeing Michael Brown’s body in Ferguson: “I remember the blood triggering me to a state of anger like I had never been there before because I could only imagine if that was our boy, if that was our grandboy… What’s the difference between Michael Brown and my grandson? Nothing.”
If #BlackLivesMatter to our politicians, they must respond to the unique challenges confronting communities of color, including fear and racism within our police forces that have led to the unjust killings of black and brown people, housing discrimination, food deserts, a lack of opportunities in jobs and education, and much more. By honoring Dr. King, the pope reminded us how this civil rights icon moved our nation toward justice. We can and must continue in that quest.
Let us live out Pope Francis’s message to bridge divides and transform our economy and our politics. We the People know that our country must move toward justice for all. I pray that Congress heard what Pope Francis said and will work with us to make that happen.