Speaking to Congress, Pope Francis offered his understanding of the American spirit. He revealed for us who we are in the core of our identity as a nation and challenged us to remember our own story.
Identifying himself as “a son of this continent,” Francis reminded us that the uniqueness and inspiration of America lies in our aspiration to freedom, dreams, and welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Pope Francis reminds us.
We are in the midst of a global refugee crisis and Francis implores us:
“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.”
He consistently speaks on behalf of refugees. Yet, here he is identifying the very heart of the American identity – we are a nation of immigrants and therefore we should respond with hospitality for refugees.
What is this American Spirit that welcomes those searching life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Pope Francis chose 4 persons who exemplified the answer: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Lincoln who reminds us that “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good;” and King, who still inspires us to dream and to “Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
Founder of the Catholic worker and Servant of God, Dorothy Day modeled an unwavering absolute commitment to the dignity of each and every human person. Her passion for justice excluded no one and understood “The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.” Finally, Thomas Merton a man of prayer committed to dialogue and engagement. For Merton, prayer and contemplation led to action. Four dreams that reveal the American spirit and that show the best of who we are offering glimpses of living out those founding ideals.
I am an American. I say this frequently here in Nairobi, where I am spending the semester at the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies. What country are you from? Is often the first question I am asked by taxi drivers and store clerks. My American identity is complicated. I enjoy considerable freedom, education, and opportunities because I am an American woman; opportunities that are not possible for women in much of the world. Still, my American identity is complicated by the complex history of American imperial and military power, current political dysfunction, and the recognition of America’s role in deep global social and economic inequalities.
And yet as he stood before Congress, Pope Francis eloquently articulated the possibility and spirit of the country I love. An identity rooted in liberty, plurality and non-exclusion, social justice, and dialogue. What does it mean to be American? Through the witness of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis showed us glimpses of the answer. Seeing my country through the eyes of Pope Francis, I see the country I love. I see the possibility of who we are called to be and the serious work required of all to get there. Pope Francis extended an invitation to become a more perfect union, will we take up the challenge?