The Spanish Speaker on the Balcony

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

People watch Pope Francis on a large screen television from the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, September 24, 2015, as the Pope addresses a joint meeting of Congress. Pope Francis is the first pontiff in history to speaks before a joint meeting of Congress. 

I should, I suppose, begin with the pope’s speech to Congress, but his brief remarks on the Speaker’s Balcony to the thousands gathered on the Capitol’s west front impressed me even more. In remarks lasting less than two minutes, Pope Francis did two radical things: First, he spoke to this quintessentially American crowd in Spanish—to be sure, his native tongue, but far more than that, the native tongue of an increasing number of American Catholics and just plain Americans, the language of most American immigrants, the language which the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination has chastised one of his rivals for speaking in public. Second, the pope asked the crowd to pray for him, but also asked the non-believers “to send good wishes my way.”

A more inclusionary two minutes, a more pluralistic perspective, cannot be imagined. Fraternity and solidarity, which Francis invoked repeatedly in his address to Congress, he personified completely in his two minutes on the balcony: These values encompass English and Spanish speakers, believers and atheists alike. His remarks were capped off by his closing benediction, delivered in English: “God bless America,” which, we should recall, has become a catchphrase thanks to the songwriting genius of one Irving Berlin, America’s most assimilated Jew.

What Francis accomplished in his speech in the House chamber was to remind our nation of its history—at least, its history at its best—and how, fundamentally, it is a history of immigrants. (He also included an apology of sorts to the non-immigrants, to Native Americans, which doubtless was intended to offset his canonization yesterday of Father Junipero Serra, builder of the California missions that became a death trap for the indigenous tribes.) Francis is also cognizant of our nation’s history when it’s not been at its best. One of the unspoken stories that shaped his life was his father’s decision, when he could no longer live under Mussolini’s fascist regime, to come to the New World, as millions of Italians had before him. Unlike most of those millions, however, his father couldn’t come to the United States, which had slammed its door on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and virtually everyplace else, in 1924, when it effectively banned immigration from anywhere other than Northwestern Europe—a law that remained on the books until 1965. That’s why Francis was born and raised in Argentina and not the U.S.

Of the four Americans whose example Francis encouraged members of Congress to learn from, there were two—Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton—whom, I suspect, some members of Congress knew of barely if at all. Day was a Greenwich Village bohemian (a onetime lover of Hart Crane) who heard the call and committed herself to serving the poor, establishing the Catholic Worker—an organization of devout Catholic radicals and pacifists—to do just that. (Her most prominent acolyte, Michael Harrington, left the fold and became the nation’s leading democratic socialist in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.) Day was also a burr in the hide of New York’s Cardinal Spellman—a Cold Warrior whose support for U.S. armed interventions she opposed volubly at every turn.

Francis used his discussion of Merton’s legacy to praise, in barely disguised abstractions, the Obama administration’s efforts to establish a modus vivendi not just with Cuba but Iran as well. He further underscored his support for those efforts by electing to shake hands with just one person as he walked down the center aisle of the House on his way to the podium: Secretary of State John Kerry.

The pope’s speech was an eloquent prodding to Americans to welcome immigrants and help the poor as they themselves would wish to be welcomed and helped. But then, he conveyed the same spirit of inclusivity and solidarity in his two minutes on the balcony. As a confirmed non-believer, I most surely send good wishes his way. 

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