Throughout history we have seen the power of words to open minds, bring people together and change the course of events. While that is a high bar for anyone to meet, my expectations are indeed high for Pope Francis’ visit to America.
That’s why I am so looking forward to and honored to be invited by Rep. Bill Foster to join him as his guest when Pope Francis addresses Congress and the nation next week.
I had the privilege of meeting with Pope Benedict in 2008 when he visited the United States and met with leaders of Catholic universities. There were some especially sharp divisions at the time regarding how best the 230 Catholic colleges and universities in this country could best fulfill their mission in a secularized society.
Such a conversation was not a new one for the church, but it needed addressing. Pope Benedict’s words were instructive. His guidance led us to develop a more organized, national effort for church leaders and Catholic higher education leaders to meet to share their perspectives in a mutually respectful environment. This initiative continues to this day — and it began with the Holy Father.
When we look at the world today, more than seven years since that last visit to America by a pope, we see more challenges. Immigrants are fleeing war-torn Syria and are desperately looking for new homes. Divisions based on race and income demand attention. More and more people are unwisely pursuing personal fulfillment through exaggerated consumerism.
In advance of the Pope Francis’ address, many will question if words alone will really make a difference. Some in the press have even suggested that this former literature and psychology professor may not have the deftness required to achieve common ground in a culture where the loudest voices seem to get the most attention.
Let me tell you why I think Pope Francis can succeed by examining just one among many pressing issues, climate change. His position is clear, and his opinions and moral perspectives are probably fairly well known to the members of Congress: “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.” The pope, however, will lay out guiding principles and invite all people of good will to exercise greater stewardship for the earth.
Of course, the Pope will be addressing a political body in which many members represent congressional districts and states where jobs are dependent on the oil industry. Others in the audience believe that the science on climate change is shaky — they agree change is occurring, but they are not convinced the causes are man-made. These will be challenges for the pope.
What I think we will see Pope Francis do is to very ably engage those elected leaders in the House of Representatives chamber and their constituents watching on TV and online all across America, speaking to them in the light of their values and their desire to do the right thing.
The pope has used such an approach in the past. Who can’t be drawn into reflection when they hear the following words: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all …. We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family.”
At Lewis University in suburban Chicago, we are committed to making a significant reduction in our ecological footprint on campus as well as in the surrounding area. Our students learn the importance of protecting our environment through our award-winning sustainability initiatives on campus. For instance, we consistently repurpose rainwater via various collection sites. Moreover, we frequently incorporate permeable pavers and bioswales, and we utilize the park-like Glen water detention area as a filtration site and reservoir.
This all led The Princeton Review to honor us an environmentally responsible “green” college.
As I am sure the pope will once again demonstrate, it is actually putting our words into action that counts the most. Popes have had that kind of effect often before and I have little doubt we will see it again in the coming days.
Brother James Gaffney, FSC, is president of Lewis University in Romeoville.